Philomena movie poster
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Philomena
Philomena movie poster

Philomena Movie Review

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A woman's child is stolen by evil nuns and, 50 years later, she sets out to find him with the help of a cynical journalist in Philomena, a moderately entertaining but overhyped drama starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench.

From director Stephen Frears (The Queen), Philomena is a relatively breezy drama with doses of comedy that switches between modern day and flashbacks to when the title character was a young, unwed mother "held captive" by Irish nuns. Though the movie has a few heavy moments in it, Frears keeps things relatively light. Whether that's a good thing is another matter.

The movie is based on a true story and as a result, Frears largely avoids melodrama for the sake of melodrama. Its dramatic notes rely largely on the skill of Judi Dench; she plays her character effectively, balancing sentimentality with nuanced humor. Her character resonated with me; the way she talked in detail about random, inconsequential things, and the way Coogan as journalist Martin Sixsmith (the author of the book upon which this film is based) reacts to her with annoyed amusement, reminded me a lot of my grandmother - and how I sometimes feel after spending an hour with her on the phone, as much as I love her.

Does Judi Dench give a good performance? Yes. Is her performance worthy of a Golden Globe and possible Oscar nomination? No.

Coogan is fine in his role but his character primarily exists to move the plot along; he's essential to the story, but neither his character nor his performance are particularly noteworthy.

Overall, Philomena is a well made movie, but Frears misses obvious opportunities to do more with his story. His insistence on remaining even-keeled through some of the film's more dramatic revelations is admirable, but it lessens the impact of these moments. We see Martin's anger when certain facts come to light regarding the nuns' actions, and yet that anger, that emotion, doesn't find itself into the movie itself. We watch, but we don't feel.

At the same time, the movie could have been funnier without dampening the dramatic aspects of the story. The script hints at a desire to be funny at times, and in fact some of the U.S. trailers play up the humorous aspects of the film, but the film's comedic elements come far and few between.

Philomena is good, but that's all it is: a lighthearted drama that is neither powerful nor particularly funny.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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