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Philomena - review

Dec 30, 2013 Film & TV

Directed by Stephen Frears

The cruel and repressive policies of the Irish Catholic church towards unmarried mothers have been documented in film before (most notably in 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters), and Philomena offers another dose, zeroing in on the church’s medieval and hysterical attitudes towards sex that often scarred its victims for life.

While The Magdalene Sisters was a composite picture of life in the Magdalene asylums, this time it’s a biographical tale, with Steve Coogan playing Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist who gets roped into helping a middle-aged woman find the son who was snatched from her as an infant in the 1950s, when she was forced to work in a convent laundry as punishment for getting pregnant out of wedlock.

What makes the film work particularly well is the friction between the snooty Sixsmith, whose intellectual gravitas makes him think he’s above chasing a “human interest” story, and the dowdy, salt-of-the-earth Philomena (Judi Dench), who reads romantic novels and whose love for her lost son is rivalled only by her abiding attachment to the church that wronged her. Like most successful stories about an oddball-couple, the payoff lies in how they navigate their differences and come to have a grudging respect and affection for each other.

Both Coogan and Dench turn in first-rate performances, and Coogan’s screenplay (adapted from Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee) has enough twists to keep the audience guessing what the outcome of their quest will be.

What’s astonishing about these tales, of course, is that the Catholic church in Ireland was still imprisoning young women until the 1990s — although, given that it took the Vatican until 1992 to officially acknowledge it was wrong to have condemned Galileo for claiming the Earth revolves around the Sun, perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising at all.


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