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Should I Watch..? 'Philomena' (2013)

Updated on April 4, 2022
Benjamin Cox profile image

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Poster for "Philomena"
Poster for "Philomena" | Source

What's the big deal?

Philomena is a comedy drama film released in 2013 and is an adaptation of the book The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith. The film tells the true story of Philomena Lee's fifty year search for the child forcibly removed from her care by the Catholic Church in Ireland and Martin's help in tracking him down. The film also deals with the often fractious relationship between Philomena and Martin and the road trip they go on in order to get to the truth. Despite criticism from some quarters of an anti-Catholic bias, the film received widespread acclaim when it was released especially for the performances by stars Judi Dench and co-writer Steve Coogan who helped produce the film after coming across an article about the case in a newspaper.


5 stars for Philomena

What's it about?

Former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith has recently lost his job as a New Labour spin doctor and has begun to spiral into depression as a result. Contemplating writing a book on Russian history, he bumps into Sally Mitchell who tells him about her mother. Philomena Lee was a young Irish woman who became pregnant at a young age and was forced to give her son up for adoption by the Catholic nuns who cared for them both. Wracked with guilt, she had been searching for her son Anthony without success and Sally decided to ask Martin for his help. Initially reluctant, Martin agrees and meets with Philomena to discuss trying to find him.

Their first port-of-call is Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland where they find no record of the adoption but a contract signed by Philomena stating that she would not try to find her child. Becoming suspicious at the convent's unhelpfulness, Martin follows a hunch of his own and to everyone's astonishment, locates a new lead in Washington, DC...


What's to like?

I've never been much of a fan of true-life stories as they tend to contain more melodrama than I can handle. And while Philomena would certainly adhere to that statement, it is a testament to its value that I stuck with it until the very end. There are several reasons why this is such a great film but the first two are Dench and Coogan. Naturally, you'd expect a great performance from Dame Judi and you certainly get one. Coogan is a natural comedian and comic writer but his understated performance as Sixsmith is full of rage at the injustices that befalls his unlikely companion and determination to see the story through to the end. Of course, he still sneaks in a few good laughs here and there but it's enough to forget that you're watching Alan Partridge in a drama movie.

The script doesn't just follow Philomena on her quest to find her lost son but also Sixsmith's ordeal writing the book the movie is based on. It generously gives both characters time to develop on screen and they feel more believable as a result. The various twists of the tale also really hit home and as each new discovery and revelation are uncovered, you marvel at the strength of this humble, ordinary woman coping in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

Coogan (left) and Dench are a great odd-couple and give the film a much-needed lightness
Coogan (left) and Dench are a great odd-couple and give the film a much-needed lightness | Source

Fun Facts

  • The film uses old "home movies" to illustrate memories of Philomena's son. Although some were shot specifically for the film, the rest contain genuine footage of her actual son.
  • Visiting the convent, Martin asks about the photo of Jayne Mansfield on the wall. Peter Hermann, who plays Pete Olsson later in the film, is married to Jayne Mansfield's daughter Mariska Hargitay.
  • The film was originally rated R in the US but after an appeal by producer Harvey Weinstein and Coogan himself, the rating was adjusted to a PG-13 just one week before it premiered. The censors objected to the repeated use of the F word.

What's not to like?

Dench's Irish accent is a bit temporary in places and the film naturally takes a fair bit of dramatic licence with the material. For example, the real Sister Hildergarde had long since died when Sixsmith began his investigation so obviously, the two never met. But generally speaking, Philomena is a movie of exceptionally rare quality and led from the front by two superb performers.

If anything, the movie generates some pretty strong feelings and emotions in the viewers. I, for one, shared Sixsmith's sense of outrage as the pieces came together. It also hammers home some of the faults with religious fundamentalism and how one person's moral code can be forever shaped by the personalities of the supposedly pious. But despite that, the film still retains a pro-Catholic message in the unlikely shape of Philomena herself. She rarely questions her faith or the decisions of her past and struggles to determine what is right and wrong when faced with difficult choices. As a committed agnostic, I'm not so sure I would have her strength in the face of such cruelty.

Sixsmith's book formed the basis for the script but not in the way he intended
Sixsmith's book formed the basis for the script but not in the way he intended | Source

Should I watch it?

It's an unusual film that can combine humour with pathos, anger and grace but Philomena is an unusually good film. It really can be watched by anybody (assuming a tolerance for occasional bad language) and the film's strengths lay in the quality of the script, the fact that it all did happen and the stunning performances from both Dench and Coogan. Now, if I can just find a copy of the book...

Great For: sparking debate, the whole family, people who endured similar treatment

Not So Great For: Catholic fundamentalists, Alan Partridge fans

What else should I watch?

I recall seeing one person claim that Philomena is the new The King's Speech. It's a fair assessment - the Tom Hooper film features Colin Firth in blistering form as the stuttering King George VI who must overcome his speech difficulties with the help of Geoffrey Rush's language expert. But there's nothing wrong with it and nor is there with Finding Neverland, the sublime true story of J.M. Barrie's relationship with a young family which inspired him to create Peter Pan.

For a more American drama, there's always the dusty Erin Brockovich which stars Julia Roberts squeezed into clothes too small for her to play a simple admin assistant at a local law firm who takes on the energy giants of California who have polluted a town's water supply. It may lack the laughs that Coogan brings to Philomena but Roberts did win an Oscar for her performance so she's doing something right. Speaking of laughs, Coogan fans will want to check out both The Trip which sees him having petty squabbles with Rob Brydon via numerous impressions or Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa where his most famous comic creation finally makes his way to the big screen.

Main Cast

Judi Dench
Philomena Lee
Steve Coogan
Martin Sixsmith
Sophie Kennedy Clark
Young Philomena
Barbara Jefford
Sister Hildergarde
Michelle Fairley
Sally Mitchell
Mare Winningham
Peter Hermann
Pete Olsson

Technical Info

Stephen Frears
Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope *
Running Time
98 minutes
Release Date (UK)
1st November, 2013
Biography, Comedy, Drama
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film, Best Leading Actress (Dench), Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay

* based on the book "The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee" by Martin Sixsmith

© 2015 Benjamin Cox


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