Surrounded in controversy regarding its portrayal of the Catholic Church, the true story of Philomena never quite lives up to what it could be due to poor writing and a lack of substance from some of its supporting characters.
Philomena, played by Judi Dench, has lived in shame and anguish for 50 years after having her child taken from her by the Catholic Church because she had the child out of wedlock. She had never told anybody about this because of the embarrassment she thought she would face. On what would be the sons 50th birthday, she decides to share the secret with her daughter, who then finds Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan (who also wrote the screenplay), and the two set off to find the lost son.
Dench is great in her role, rightfully gaining her nominations. She is a devout Catholic even after the same religion she has been devoted to took her child away from her 50 years prior. Philomena has worried for her child each and every day for her entire life; where he ended up, if he is fat, if he thinks of her or Ireland, and she finally has to know what happened to him. She does not have a sense of humor, she rattles on about romance novels, and she is so kind and generous, but she is the real heart of the film. It is a heartbreaking yet also heartwarming performance and she is certainly the highlight of the film. Her faith never waivers as she proceeds throughout the movie. Unfortunately I cannot delve deeper into her performance without spoiling major plot points.
Together with Sixsmith, who is basically the exact opposite of Philomena, they create a wonderful duo in a search that crosses oceans to find her son. Sixsmith, after having been fired from his job, speculates about his future endeavors. When the opportunity falls into his lap about writing the “human interest story” featuring Philomena, he is fast to turn down the offer, but even faster to reverse his decision. Thus begins the journey to the convent where Philomena worked and lost her child, but it is also the beginning of an even bigger story that is full of more twists and turns than one of your average thrillers. Sixsmith, an atheist, has qualms and constant debates with Philomena about the presence of God and why a religion would do such a thing as take a child away from its mother. He is a bitter, and at times, funny man.
When the journey begins, we really see the poor writing. If you actually think about it, there is a rather large amount of information lacking from the film. For instance, the father of Philomena’s daughter is never mentioned. This is something that could have easily been included in some form of dialogue, but the exposition is never featured, we do not know what roles he played as a parent, and we don’t even know if he is alive or dead. There are also some poorly written jokes that come off as contrived rather than natural.
While finding people who knew of Philomena’s son, we never really learn the impact he had in their lives. This takes away a lot of the emotional impact that the story has to offer. The people they find who are connected to the son feel more like underwritten characters that progress the story than actual people with any sort of emotions, we never find out what influence the son had in their lives, thus never really creating the impact that the story promises.
Nevertheless, Philomena is a fine and sorrowful movie. The acting is top-notch and the message is powerful, yet the writing at times detracts from what could be a truly great movie. So go see this movie if you want a rather harsh look at the Catholic Church or want to see a heartbreaking movie about a mother’s shame and her 50 year-long search for her son.