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Some secrets are hard to keep, especially when they are eating at your heart. So, after fifty years of silence, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) finally confesses to her adult daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) that the girl has a step-sibling—a boy who was born after a passionate moment Philomena’s youth.
Unwed and pregnant, the teenaged Philomena (played by Sophie Kennedy Clark) was taken to a Catholic run home for “fallen women” near Roscrea, Ireland. Here she underwent a painful breach delivery, which the Mother Superior (Ruth McCabe) told her was merely, “Penitence for her sins.” In return for the care and shelter provided her and the baby, Philomena, along with dozens of other disgraced young mothers, was relegated to three years of work within the convent. Yet while laboriously washing endless piles of laundry, Philomena couldn’t help but notice frequent visits to the abbey by couples in luxury automobiles. Most of them later left with a child of their choice. It was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened and her son Anthony (Tadhg Bowen) was taken away by one of the mysterious strangers.
Over the next half century Philomena did make timid attempts to locate her son, but all were in vain. The Sisters claim a fire destroyed the adoption records. Still, Jane isn’t sure her mother is getting all the facts. When she runs into freelance journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former BBC reporter and “spin doctor” for the Prime Minister, the devoted daughter does her best to pitch Philomena’s predicament as an article idea. At first the jaded journalist sees the “human interest” story as beneath him, but after some coaxing he starts to consider its potential as a solid expose piece. Although a visit to the nuns at Roscrea only produces tea and cake, Martin does stumble across a clue that points towards an American adoption for the child. With the dottery Irishwoman in tow, he and Philomena begin a journey to Washington D.C. where they hope to access the information needed to find her now-grown son (Sean Mahon).
Based on actual events, Philomena is a mature story that poses only a few content concerns for older teens. Two sexual expletives, along with about a half-dozen more mild and moderate profanities are heard. A couple of short, frank sexual comments are made. A brief sensual interlude between two teens is implied (only a kiss is shown), which is followed by a lengthy scene of painful childbirth. And a gay couple exchanges some brief kisses.
Yet what is really remarkable about this movie are the insights it shares, especially surrounding the crippling power guilt, the way we judge others and how we chose to respond to those who have hurt us. While Philomena is not a particularly religious (or anti-religious) movie, audiences with a spiritual bent will recognize and appreciate the irony of the situations poised in the story. For instance, who is the saint, and who is the sinner? What causes more damage to the soul: self-righteousness or shame? What is the best way to untangle the past: by holding on or letting go?
Along with his staring role, Steve Coogan also co-wrote the screenplay (with Jeff Pope), which is based on a book authored by the real Martin Sixsmith. Using comedy in a way that illuminates and expands the characters without distracting from the serious nature of the story, the script deftly combines humor and heart-wrenching drama. It also offers a wry look at the qualities media considers “interesting,” as we watch Sixsmith and his editor (Michelle Fairley) discuss what angle his narrative will take.
However the real charm of the movie is the working relationship between the pair, captured in Coogan and Dench’s performances. Sixsmith (a professed atheist) and Philomena (still a practicing Catholic) are an oil and water mix that often separates during disagreements. Yet the two eventually form bonds as they are shaken by their discoveries and shared experiences. By the time the credits roll viewers can’t help but be moved by the inherent love most mothers have for their children—no matter how many obstacles may come between them.
Note: Philomena has appealed the MPAA’s (Motion Picture association of America) and received a more-family friendly PG-13.
Philomena is rated PG-13: On Appeal (The MPAA originally rated Philomena R for some language.)
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Mare Winningham, Michelle Fairley, Steve Coogan
Studio: 2013 The Weinstein Company
Website: Official site for Philomena.