MRR Review: "Philomena"

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A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman's search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.
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MRR Review: "Philomena"

Rating: PG-13 (Strong language, thematic elements, sexual references)
Length: 98 minutes
Release Date: November 22, 2013
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Genre: Drama

"Philomena" is a 2013 drama that's sure to tug at your heartstrings. The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, a woman whose story is told by a washed-up journalist named Martin Sixsmith. The film stars Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as Sixsmith. When Philomena was a young Catholic schoolgirl, her ashamed father abandoned her at a convent after she became impregnated by a young lover. Years later, Philomena connects with a formerly famous journalist who promises to do a human-interest story on her journey to reconnect with the child who was taken from her against her will.

"Philomena" is heartwarming, but it's not always an easy story. The film recounts the abuse the star faced at the hands of the corrupt nuns in charge of her convent. As it turns out, the nuns were kidnapping the children of the unwed mothers who were brought to them and selling them to wealthy American families looking to circumvent the adoption process. Philomena and the other girls at the convent were forced to work under cruel conditions without being paid. Fifty years after the event, Philomena sets out to find out what happened to her son and reconnect with him.

Although Sixsmith begins the story unimpressed and disinterested, he soon takes on a personal interest in Philomena's story when he discovers the abuse and injustice she endured. He helps her conduct the investigation in search of her son and realizes that the nuns at the convent are still conspiring to create a cover-up that will keep Philomena from the truth about what happened to her son. Sixsmith and Philomena form an unlikely investigative pair, challenging the establishment of corruption that threatened to destroy her in her younger years.

Judi Dench's portrayal is what brings the true story of Philomena to life. In spite of the incredible traumas she has overcome, Philomena's character is portrayed as humorous, vibrant, and gracious. Rather than hold onto bitterness about those who wronged her, Philomena maintains a strong faith and even feels guilt for not being able to raise her son. Although she seems sheltered and naïve at first, Sixsmith soon realizes that her innocence is an act of choice rather than a natural state. Philomena is well acquainted with the cruelties of the world, yet she has found a way to rise above them, which is something that challenges Sixsmith's character and makes him question his own cynicism.

Although "Philomena" tackles some very dark subject matter, the ultimate moral of the story is one of hope and redemption. Philomena herself proves that no matter what a person goes through, it is possible to live freely and behave graciously toward others. Throughout the film, rooting for the woman to reconnect with her lost son is inevitable, although the writing holds an element of suspense that keeps the final outcome a secret until the very end. While other films might tackle the rough subject of "Philomena" by harsh criticism of the faith of the main character's abusers, director Stephen Frears manages to tell the truth about these real-life circumstances while maintaining a nonjudgmental stance. True faith is respectfully contrasted with the abuse that Philomena and so many other girls at the convent endured.

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of the film is the growing relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith. Coogan does a superb job of playing the dry-witted, cynical journalist. The actor also served as the screenwriter for the film, injecting his personality and method-acting skills throughout. Coogan's passion for Philomena's story is obvious both in his writing and in his portrayal of the film's leading man. This drama is filled with intelligent dialog, a philosophical quality, and a deep and profound respect for the human experience over time. Philomena's devotion to finding her son and setting things right is an admirable motivation for a film character in any genre.

Overall, "Philomena" is a remarkable drama that contains equal parts sincerity and brilliant cinematography. The acting is both understated and compelling, portraying the characters in such a way that does justice to their real counterparts. Few films based on a true story are more riveting or more heartbreaking than "Philomena," and few manage to pull off such strong tones of hope and forgiveness. The writing is well paced, and the characters are fully developed, making the final act that much more gripping. "Philomena" is one film that all fans of the drama genre should see.

Rating: 4 out of 5