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Philomena - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

Judi Dench has one Oscar, for her eight minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love (1998), and it could be argued she is due for recognition in something more substantial. She has certainly done greater work in multiple other films, and Philomena is no exception. She carries this film with both confidence and charm, and when you consider both Dench's career and her likely competition -- which wouldn't be fair but it's what the Academy does -- it appears she has a real shot of winning that Best Actress trophy. It would be well deserved.

Dench plays the title character, an elderly Irish lady who wants to find the child she was forced to give up for adoption by nuns fifty years ago. Indeed, it is on the son's fiftieth birthday, in the opening sequences of the film, that she reveals to her daughter that she had him: shame had compelled her to keep it secret all this time.

These days, it’s downright baffling to consider how young, unwed mothers were treated in the mid-twentieth century. It was frowned upon nearly everywhere, but nowhere to the degree it was (and in some circles, still is) in the Catholic Church. Philomena had a tryst with a young man at a local carnival, but was never educated by her parents about how babies come about. When her pregnancy was discovered, her parents simply dropped her off at the convent and left her to fend for herself. The horrible way these young women were treated is jaw-dropping to the modern viewer; that the only way they could leave the place was by paying £100 is the tip of the iceberg.

There is a dual story here, the other regarding semi-disgraced journalist Martin Sixsmith, played by the underrated Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the script, based on the book The Lost Child of Philamena Lee. Sixsmith is the actual journalist who wrote the book, which was nonfiction; one can only assume the script takes a great many fictional liberties, given the purposefully vague "Based on True Events" we see above the title credits. Indeed, the script occasionally veers into contrived territory, particularly when it comes to Sixsmith and his editor's unnecessarily amped-up journalistic cynicism.

Sixsmith is struggling to decide what to do with his life after being fired from a job at the BBC, and happens to come across Philamena's daughter at a party, the very day Philamena revealed her secret child to her. She suggests that Sixsmith write a story about her mother, which Sixsmith, who apparently can't help being a bit of a douchebag, almost immediately rejects. But he later changes his mind, all cold and business-like about how the story will sell rather than being genuinely interested in the story itself.

Coogan does a serviceable job as Sixsmith, although that character's development is the much more transparently contrived. It's Philamena herself we're interested in, and when it comes to her story, the "true events" that inspired it are what make her unique. Granted, she is portrayed as a relatively vapid old lady with her television and romance novels, yet more worldly and educated than she appears. These little twists are a little corny but Dench handles them with aplomb; for a lady who doesn't shut up about crap you don't care about, she's more fun than you might expect. She's also emotionally torn, though, and Dench is equally capable of making your heart break for her.

Sixsmith eventually takes Philamena with him to America, where they discover her child was adopted out to. This is after visiting the convent, where the nuns, not for the first time, prove to be unhelpful. They follow clues to Washington, D.C., where the boy turns out to have served as staff in both the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations.

I won't reveal any more about what is discovered about Philamena's son, as anything more would spoil the great many surprises, both joyful and sad, that come from this story that never goes in any predictable direction. Just when it seems they've reached a dead end, they turn it into an opportunity for more information. Sixsmith, of course, begins to let his cynicism break down, and that's the one predictable part; it feels like the obligatorily crowd-pleasing bit of the movie. But as far as Philamena's own journey goes, and the overall plot of the movie, it's a lovely ride to take with her.

There is much to take away from Philomena, from the injustices of the nuns -- who are portrayed as more complex than the "evil nuns" Sixsmith's editor wants in his story -- to the incredibly fascinating stories of both Philomena and her lost son. It's uncommon to see a movie these days that is both entertaining and enlightening, but this one proves to be that rare pleasant surprise.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan fashion a great story out of PHILOMENA.

Overall: B+
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