Sunday, December 08, 2013


Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, Philomena is the story about Sixsmith’s friendship with Philomena Lee as he helps find the son that she was forced to give up 50 years ago. Directed by Stephen Frears and screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, the film is a dramatization about a journalist trying to help a woman find where her son is as well as learning about her life story as Coogan plays Sixsmith with Judi Dench as the titular character. Also starring Mare Winningham, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Michelle Fairley, and Barbara Jefford. Philomena is an extraordinary film from Stephen Frears.

The film is a simple story about Martin Sixsmith who decides to help Philomena Lee find her son whom she was forced to give up her son 50 years ago during her time at a convent for getting pregnant as a teenager. While it is a simple story, it is one that is still very interesting where Sixsmith is trying to figure out what to do after losing his job as a government advisor to Tony Blair where he meets Philomena’s daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) at a party who had just learned what her mother told her. After convincing Sixsmith to take the story so he can do something as a former journalist where he and Philomena travel through Ireland and the U.S. to find out about her son Anthony (Sean Mahon).

The screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope does have some unique moments in the narrative along with some very witty dialogue to play into the interaction between Philomena and Sixsmith. Especially as the former is still a Catholic who prays every day while the latter is a former Catholic who has become quite cynical about the idea of religion. Though Sixsmith tries to be patient with Philomena who becomes fascinated by America, he is willing to help her in the search where it would lead to some very big revelations about Anthony. The script also has flashbacks about Philomena’s life as a young woman (Sophie Kennedy Clark) in how she conceived Anthony and the life she had living in the convent where she endured a lot of cruelty. Especially in the third act where she returns to Ireland to meet one of the surviving nuns in Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) who had put her through some of the worst years of her life.

The direction of Stephen Frears is quite straightforward in the way he presents the drama where he infuses some light-hearted humor that involves a scene in the airport where Philomena tells Sixsmith about a book she just read. Much of the compositions are simple and to the point for the scenes set in London, Ireland, and Washington D.C. Still, Frears does manage to convey some engaging moments like some of the close-ups for some of the film’s dramatic moments where the sense of guilt and loss that Philomena has suffered is shown in her face. Even where the drama can bet heavy but Frears finds a way to not delve into melodrama where he would find a balance between humor and drama. Especially in its climax where it plays into the idea of faith where even through the most terrible circumstances, there is a way to move and find forgiveness. Overall, Frears creates a very compelling film about a woman’s search to find the song she was forced to abandon many years ago.

Cinematographer Robbie Ryan does excellent work with the film‘s cinematography with the look of London and Ireland in its low-key colors including some scenes set in the winter to the more light-colored look of the scenes set in Washington D.C. and other places in the U.S.. Editor Valerio Bonelli does fantastic work with the editing where it‘s pretty straightforward with the exception of some flashback montages and such to play into the drama. Production designer Alan MacDonald, with set decorator Barbara Herman-Skelding and supervising art director Rod McLean, does terrific work with the set pieces from the hotel rooms in Washington that Sixsmith and Philomena stayed in to the convent where the young Philomena stayed.

Costume designer Consolata Boyle does nice work with the costumes as it is mostly low-key and casual with the exception of the flashback scenes in the 1950s. Visual effects supervisor Adam Gascoyne does some fine work with some of the minimal visual effects such as the backdrops for a few scenes in the U.S. Sound editor Oliver Tarney does superb work with the sound for some of the atmosphere in the locations as well as the intimate moments at the convent. The film’s music by Alexandre Desplat is brilliant for its flourishing orchestral score filled with chiming riffs and melodies as it is another of his triumphant pieces.

The casting by Leo Davis and Lissy Holm is amazing for the ensemble that was created as it features some notable small performances from Simone Lahbib as Sixsmith’s wife Kate, Cathy Belton as the convent’s new manager Sister Claire, Wummi Mosaku as the young nun in the modern scenes, Charlie Murphy as the young Philomena’s friend Kathleen who also lost a child to adoption, Sean Mahon as Philomena’s son Anthony, and Peter Herrmann as a friend of Anthony who gives Philomena some vital information. Mare Winningham is wonderful as Anthony’s adopted sister Mary who reveals some tidbits about Anthony while Michelle Fairey is terrific as Sixsmith’s editor who pushes him to get a juicier story. Anna Maxwell Martin is excellent as Philomena’s daughter Jane who would be the person to introduce her mother to Sixsmith as she helps out early on.

Barbara Jefford is great as Sister Hildegarde as this old-school nun who would be very cruel to the young Philomena while she maintains a low-key presence in the scenes set in the early 2000s. Sophie Kennedy Clark is superb as the young Philomena as this young woman who has committed a sin as she tries to redeem herself only to watch her child be taken away from her. Steve Coogan is fantastic as Martin Sixsmith as Coogan brings a more low-key approach to his humor as this cynical and bitter journalist who is just trying to get himself back on track while dealing with this old woman and the story that she’s lived through. Judi Dench is just remarkable as the titular role as she has this very lively woman who is so full of charm only to balance that with a sense of guilt where Dench shows restraint in her dramatic approach as she is a major highlight for the film while having some fun chemistry with Steve Coogan.

Philomena is a marvelous film from Stephen Frears that features incredible performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. The film is truly an engaging story that features a woman trying to find the son she was forced to abandon as well as explore into some of the cruelty of the Catholic church without being too critical. Even as Frears manages to infuse some witty humor courtesy of Coogan and co-screenwriter Jeff Pope. In the end, Philomena is a rich and enchanting film from Stephen Frears.

Stephen Frears Films: (Gumshoe) - (Afternoon Off) - (Bloody Kids) - (Walter) - (Walter and June) - (December Flower) - (The Hit (1984 film)) - (My Beautiful Launderette) - (Prick Up Your Ears) - (Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door) - (Sammie and Rose Get Laid) - (The Grifters) - (Hero (1992 film)) - (The Snapper) - (Mary Reilly) - (The Van (1996 film)) - (The Hi-Lo Country) - (High Fidelity) - (Liam) - (Fail-Safe (2000 TV film)) - Dirty Pretty Things - (The Deal (2003 TV film)) - (Mrs. Henderson Presents) - The Queen (2006 film) - (Cheri) - (Tamara Drewe) - (Lay the Favorite) - (Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight)

© thevoid99 2013


ruth said...

Great review Steven! I LOVE Judi Dench and the story intrigues me. I'm curious to see how Coogan's screenplay plays out, I didn't even know he does writing as well as acting, esp. this one is a serious drama. I only know him as a British comedian.

thevoid99 said...

Thanks. I was surprised by this film as I forgot that it was helmed by Stephen Frears as it's definitely the best thing he's done since The Queen. I know Steve Coogan through his funnier work where he does get to be funny but in a restrained way as he and Dench are just fun to watch.

Chris said...

Glad you liked this one! I saw it recently too, and enjoyed the chemistry between the two leads. I agree it has some witty dialogue, and you can't help but root for Dench's character.

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-I know. She's so fun to watch and Coogan being her foil was also fun to watch. Even in the way she is so kind to the hotel staff and such.

Unknown said...

I have not even heard of this one, but I like Frears,and I'm sureprised that Coogan wrote this. I feel that Philomena would make a good double feature with Nebraska.

thevoid99 said...

@Jason Hemming-I think it would be a good double-bill w/ Nebraska since it is about old people going on the road. I really hope to see Nebraska as I do love Alexander Payne. Yet, this film is also worth watching just because of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.