September 14, 2013



In recent years, the… let’s call it mature audience has been a profitable one, making moderate hits of films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet.  This holiday season, the title of choice for this niche is likely to be PHILOMENA, a literate tearjerker that Harvey Weinstein unveiled at the Venice and Toronto film festivals.

Based on a true story (of course), its protagonist is Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irish woman who, decades before, had gotten pregnant out of wedlock and been forced to give birth at a local convent, where the sisters put her to work (a story told in broader strokes in Peter Mullen’s The Magdelene Sisters) and eventually put her young son up for adoption without even telling Philomena in advance.  In the present day, she enlists Martin Sixthsmith (Steve Coogan) to help her find the now-grown man.  Sixsmith is a cynic who had begun his career as a journalist, then became a government spokesman, and is now reluctantly returning to his old profession; assisting Philomena starts out merely as a means to a story he can sell, but his emotional involvement with her saga steadily increases.

Although somewhat of a detective story, the bulk of Philomena is about the relationship between the Irish working woman and the sophisticated writer, as Sixsmith is alternately amused, wearied, amazed and moved by Philomena.  The script, which Coogan himself wrote with Jeff Pope, is crisp and intelligent, with the acerbic touches of wit you’d expect from Coogan.  Most importantly, he and his co-writer provide chewy roles for Dench and himself, and both of them nimbly make meals of the parts.  Dench, less imperious than she sometimes appears on screen, is vividly frank and believably humble as Philomena, who slowly discovers the twists of her son’s fate, while Coogan capably provides support, allowing his partner to draw as many laughs as he does, and serving as the audience’s surrogate.  Stephen Frears, coming off a few misfires with Lay the Favorite, Tamara Drewe and Cheri, is on comfortable territory here, and he expertly guides the narrative and the performances.  The polished photography is by Robbie Ryan, and there’s an emotionally evocative score by Alexandre Deplat.

Philomena’s story turns out to be more geographically and sociologically broad than one would expect, bringing in issues that, in the end, the movie doesn’t have much interest in exploring very deeply (it’s not terribly convincing that upon learning what certainly seems like a surprising revelation about her son, Philomena says matter-of-factly that she’d guessed as much when he was 2 years old).  The characters, while thoroughly entertaining and able when necessary to bring a lump to the throat, are more “characters” than fully drawn individuals.  Philomena‘s final message of forgiveness and emotional closure, too, is satisfying on a fairly superficial level.  Nevertheless, this is a movie that will please the audience for which it’s been tailored, a neat and accomplished (and, at 97 minutes, nicely brisk) story that provides plenty of opportunity for laughs and tissues.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."