Film review: Philomena (2013)

Over the weekend I watched this film that was nominated for four Academy Awards including best picture, actress (Judy Dench), adapted screenplay, and music score, although it did not win any. It is an excellent film, one of the best that I have seen in recent years, and one that I can strongly recommend to readers.

It tell the story (so closely based on real life that names of the major characters are those of their real-life counterparts) of Philomena Lee (Dench) who as a young Catholic girl in Ireland became pregnant out of wedlock and, as often happened in those times, was disowned by her parents and sent off to a nunnery where her son was given away for adoption against her will and where she had to work under appalling conditions in what was essentially a workhouse for four years in order to pay for the cost of her delivery. That other excellent film The Magdalene Sisters (2002) tells a darker version of this story of the abuse of young unmarried pregnant girls who were exploited for their labor in Catholic nunneries with the collusion of the Irish government.

Although Lee never forgets her child, she keeps the story of her baby secret for fifty years and then reveals it to her daughter who enlists Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan), a former BBC journalist and later turned political flack who has just been fired from his job, to try and discover what happened to her son. The film tells the story of the developing relationship between Lee and Sixsmith as they seek him. Lee is still a practicing Catholic and Sixsmith is an atheist who cannot believe that Lee continues to believe in the church after all that the church did to her.

The film is compact and pitch-perfect, with superb performances by Dench and Coogan, a witty script that never loses its focus, and a great director in Stephen Frears who has a string of excellent films to his credit (My Beautiful Launderette, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, The Snapper, High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen). It is so tightly written and directed so that you are always engrossed, even though there is no violence, sex, or car chases. It is just good story-telling.

Here’s the trailer.

The film has been attacked as anti-Catholic but that is typical of religious people. They do awful things and then when it is pointed out, they whine about how people are being mean to them. Pope Francis met with Lee and Coogan on February 5, 2014, though his spokesperson said that Francis does not watch films.

Coogan (who co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced) appeared on The Daily Show to promote the film and talked about the challenges of making a film about someone who is still alive. It is a good interview.

(This clip aired on January 7, 2014. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)


  1. Marshall says

    Mano, I love your film reviews, because you seem to get irked by the same things in film that I do. Even though people don’t comment much on them, don’t stop!

  2. moarscienceplz says

    Thanks for the review, Mano. I’ll try to seek it out.
    Judy Dench is always so good. I really enjoyed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

  3. Mano Singham says


    I am glad that you enjoy the reviews. I love films and enjoy writing the reviews but am not sure how much people care about what I think about them.

  4. Curt Cameron says

    I saw this movie shortly before the Oscars night, and agree that it’s excellent. Whenever I see movies that are supposedly based on real events, I can never help reading about the actual events. It’s always nice to read that the movie sticks to the facts, as it did in Philomena.

    On the other hand, I watched Argo recently, and after reading how it contrasted with reality, I had the feeling that I had been deceived.

    Should I just appreciate the movie for the story it tells? Why do I feel compelled to compare a supposedly non-fiction movie to its real-life events? I think it’s because, if I think a movie is non-fiction, it engages me in a way that watching fiction doesn’t. I appreciate fiction, but the idea that it’s real steps up my engagement to a much higher level. So if I then learn that the real story was very different, I feel like the movie version lied to me in order to reach that higher engagement.

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