'Philomena' Review: Evil Baby-Stealing Nuns Are No Match For Judi Dench
OKAY, so maybe that headline is a bit misleading. However, there are baby-stealing nuns in this movie, and Judi Dench is just better than everyone else in the world. But it’s misleading because this movie sounds badass, but is really kind of a thing your older aunt would be watching during a family reunion, when there’s only one TV, and everyone else is enraged and just wants it to be over so they can watch dumb car restoration shows on Velocity.
Everything about this movie seems set up to be good. You’ve got Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who rather involuntarily gave up her child for adoption fifty years prior. Steve Coogan plays a journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who gets roped into helping her uncover the truth behind her son’s life. It’s all based on a true story, score by Alexandre Desplat, and directed by Stephen Frears. So why the hell is it so dull?
There isn’t much to this story that doesn’t sound like the plot of a particularly boring Lifetime movie. Philomena, unmarried and pregnant, was held at a nunnery and her son was given up for adoption by the nuns, against her will. She always wondered what become of him and his life far away in America, but could never get any information out of the nuns or church. The film follows her search, fifty years later, for her son, and the mystery is the only interesting part of the film so saying too much about what happens spoils it.
Philomena attempts to be a look at the interplay between religion and rationality, old world Irish values up against the lure of the new world, journalistic integrity and the hidden desires of the heart, but it’s really rather simplistic. The entire thing is based on a book written by the real Martin Sixsmith, that chronicles his lengthy search with Philomena for the truth behind her son’s adoption and what eventually happened to both of them. It’s all very sad, and you feel bad for her. The overwrought score that never fades into the background does’t help much either.
There’s some lovely kind of odd couple moments between Dench and Coogan, the fluttery older woman and the sarcastic journalist, but overall the script doesn’t have legs enough to support their talents. Judi Dench is always just the most enjoyable to watch, no matter what she’s doing, so her take on a slightly scattered middle class nice lady is fine, but it’s hard to think about her getting older. Must be odd to have your aging documented on the big screen for decades, and it was only here that I realized how old she has gotten. Steve Coogan on the other hand, looks remarkable. Perhaps better than he ever has. Perhaps better than anyone else ever has. I guess this falls under stray observations. So let’s observe.
One more for the road.
If nothing else, Philomena reminded me that I should call my mother. It’s easy to take family relationships for granted, but watching someone else search desperately for her son made me only all too aware of how grateful I am for my own mother. But this is only maybe the most tertiary of accomplishments, Philomena.
This is truly just too boring to talk about anymore, so I’ll just say that the entire theater filled with elderly Judi Dench fans thought parts of the movie were very hilaaaarious, and also when I was leaving the theater it looked as if someone had thrown up a bunch of Reese’s Pieces. It was not me.
Amanda Mae Meyncke lives in Los Angeles and writes about movies.