TIFF 2013: Philomena – Movie Review

Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
Actors: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
Runtime: 95 min
Rating: 14A

Not many films have the ability to move one to laughter and to tears at the same time. Philomena, winner of the award for best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival, achieves this feat masterfully. Gently funny and simultaneously devastatingly tragic, this is a wonderful film that manages to promote real emotion from its audience.

Dame Judi Dench stars as Philomena, an aging woman who has kept a dark secret for over fifty years. As a young Irish-Catholic woman living in a convent, Philomena was forced to give up her illegitimate son for adoption in America wholly against her will. Now, with the help of recently disgraced BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), Philomena embarks on a cross-continental journey in an attempt to unravel the mystery and track down her long-lost child. Inspired by the real-life Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 article “The True Story of Philomena Lee,” the film reveals the story of the past alongside that of the present, exposing a horrifying system of abuse.


As expected, both of these seasoned lead actors deliver stellar performances. Coogan’s Martin is miserable and unlikeable initially, but quickly comes around, endearing himself to both Philomena and the audience alike. Dench creates a complicated title character who is not nearly as simple as she originally appears. Although she may be sweet, she is far from typical, and many of the nuggets of wisdom and truth hidden within the film can be derived from Philomena’s comments. As they work together to find Philomena’s son, Martin and Philomena form a close friendship and discuss a wide range of topics, from the religion Philomena continues to staunchly defend to the meaning of life. This film is not only about their search, but is also about these two fascinating individuals and the ways in which they interact.

Although the subject matter may be heavy, there are many moments of gentle comedy scattered through this film to lighten the mood. Many humourous instants are derived from the interactions between the two leads; often, all it takes is an aside comment or a facial expression from them to create laughter, and this fact is a testament to the respective abilities of Coogan and Dench. Music is also used to create atmosphere, and although it oscillates from mournful to hopeful and back, it is always fitting and lovely. A frosty winter landscape perfectly reflects the tone of the film as well, eliciting feelings of sadness while also being striking in its sheer beauty.


This story contains moments of devastation and redemption, and ultimately offers an uplifting conclusion. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to view this film at a public screening as opposed to one for the press. The public audience at Philomena continually laughed, gasped, and cried throughout the film, and such an emotional experience is best shared with other like-minded individuals who are able to react along with you. This film is one of those movies that remind enthusiasts why we love the art form: it can cause us to feel real emotion. I cannot recommend Philomena more strongly, as a truly beautiful piece of film.

Photo Credits: Toronto International Film Festival