Joseph Belanger’s review published on Letterboxd:
Sometimes simple is best and PHILOMENA, the latest film from Academy Award-nominated director, Stephen Frears (THE QUEEN), embodies this concept brilliantly. Sometime in the 1950’s, a teenage Philomena met a boy at a fair and found herself pregnant with his child not too long afterwards. Abandoned by the boy and her own family, she found herself at a convent in Ireland. This is where her horror began. What Philomena went through and lived with for the next fifty years would be more than most people could ever handle. Had the film based on her struggles focused solely on how horrifying her experience was, it would also be too unbearable to sit through. In Frears’s hands, Philomena’s story is always told with respect and does not shy away from the darker elements, but Frears consistently finds a way to reassure the viewer that everything will turn out fine, no matter what happens. In that regard, his film is as forgiving as the person whose story he is telling.
Philomena (Judi Dench) had to give up the child she had at the convent. She was then subjected to forced labour to repay her supposed debt to the convent and make amends for her indiscretions. Meanwhile, the nuns were selling the children had at their establishment to rich, American families. Philomena lost her boy, Anthony, when he was just four and for the next fifty years, she told no one out of shame for what she had brought upon herself and her son for having fornicated. Once she does open up about her past, she enlists the help of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the disgraced former advisor to the British Labour Party, to help track down her long lost son. Sixsmith is a little lost at the moment himself so he decides to help Philomena and help himself as well to a human interest story in the process. Their search takes them to America and the two begin to clash on topics as varied as religion and the right to privacy. What they find along the way is both heartbreaking and life affirming at the same time. The film’s ability to make you either cry or laugh out loud depending on the moment is one of its greatest attributes.
PHILOMENA is a great success for all involved. Frears does capture a truly warm tone that is as inviting as it is infectious but he could never have gotten there alone. Coogan, a man known for his great comedic abilities, co-wrote this tender script, which is based on the book Sixsmith published about his experience with Philomena. As surprising as it is at times that he was able to write something so sensitive, his understated performance is even more impressive. This is doubly so when you consider that he manages to stand out while acting opposite the fantastic Dench. Dench has given so many grand performances before but Philomena is one of her all time best. Philomena is nothing if not fully genuine at all times and Dench can go from charming to serious to devastated in a split second depending on what’s needed. It is as if she cannot contain her emotions; they just happen spontaneously on her weathered face and, as a result, when Philomena is happy, so are we; by that same token though, when Philomena is heartbroken, we are as well. At times in the film, Philomena questions whether she wants her story told but in the end, the perfect people came together to do it the justice it deserved.