Harry Ridgway’s review published on Letterboxd:
In the hands of lesser filmmakers and screenwriters, 'Philomena' could have been merely a cinematic vessel for criticism and condemnation directed squarely at the Catholic Church. Fortunately, Stephen Frears, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope have comprehended how delicate this remarkable true story must be treated and executed. What could have easily been an unwavering piece of propaganda, is instead a touching, witty and provocative insight into a dark time and place in history and the tragic ramifications it had on the victims involved.
'Philomena' tells the true tale of an elderly Irish woman named Philomena Lee, who after falling pregnant with a baby boy is sent and forced to work at a convent. Despite the grueling labor that keeps Philomena and her son Anthony apart for most of their days, it's obvious he is the highlight of her otherwise dire reality. One day, Philomena is unexpectedly informed that her son has been adopted by an American family and, unable to leave the convent to go after him, her son is shipped away to her complete distraught. We follow Philomena 50 years later as she and recently (and wrongly) fired journalist Martin Sixsmith attempt to find Anthony and reunite mother and son. This touching tale seemed ripe for picking to be converted into film and thankfully the translation is brilliant.
The film commences into action without hesitation, introducing us to the difficult past of Philomena through effective flashback sequences, traversing time between the elderly and regretful Philomena and the young but trapped teenager seamlessly. Judi Dench's facial expressions is all that's required in powerfully conveying the hurt and burning guilt rumbling around inside Philomena as she reflects on her past. Once the full history of Philomena is efficiently revealed and we are ready to begin our search for now-50 year old Anthony, the film has successfully snatched our attention and emotions.
The journey we are lead on throughout the film is permanently intriguing, as we follow the lead of these two characters who search left and right for any information at all. It's an amazing feat the writers achieve with instilling a constant air of lightheartedness but also a strong undercurrent of drama and tragedy simultaneously. A problem that is pleasantly avoided is that of sporadic tonal shifts that removes us from the atmosphere. Thankfully this must have been one of the writers major concerns when penning the script and therefore this possible flaw is quietly worked around. Dialogue is biting, pointed and witty and Frears simple yet intimate direction is cleanly filmed, taking the viewpoint of a fly on the wall as we watch this astounding story unfold. All characters radiate depth and seem to be regular, living and breathing citizens of this world that are living out there lives whilst we observe. Moments of astonishing poignancy are elevated by Alexandre Desplat's enchantingly moving score which adds to the already-vibrant atmosphere. The entire film has satisfying touches of delicacy and heart abundant.
A great performance consists of a believable exterior that hints towards an alive interior, and certainly the two main performances surpass this rule. It is a joyous sight to see Judi Dench at the top of her powers, possibly giving one of her best performances and one which excels at comedic timing and tragic expression. She provides Philomena with an extra layer of gentleness but also an obvious core of misguided culpability. Another joyous sight is that of Steve Coogan in full flight as the world-weary Martin Sixsmith. An introverted turn that always inhabits subtlety, Coogan's Sixsmith is most possibly the best performance of his career. Both actors make a great screen team and their much talked about chemistry is always pungent.
I do hope this film serves as not only a joyous and resonating outing for audiences but also an encouragement to others with similar stories to speak up, asking for knowledge like Martin Sixsmith and Philomena Lee finally did. The story of Philomena Lee deserves unyielding reverence and thankfully the filmmakers and performers understand this perfectly. A tender and stirring portrayal of a moment in time that many would like forgotten but few will ever forget, 'Philomena' rarely stumbles (occasionally hammering home the humble attitude of Philomena a bit too hard) on its symbolic and emotional adventure that not only tells the story of Philomena, but includes strong over-arching themes of forgiveness and regret that we can all relate to in some way. With it's powerhouse performances and resolute script, this is a film that will keep your brain ticking and your eyes watering long after the credits have rolled.