What it lacks in subtlety, Philomena makes up in performance, characterization and compelling plot.
Director Stephen Frears and Writer Steve Coogan craft Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) as sympathetic, but flawed human beings with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. Throughout the film, both characters feel genuine, true to life. Neither changes much, but Philomena is plot-based, so that hardly matters; these are well-written protagonists with whom we empathize and for whom we can cheer.
Coogan, the actor, equals his character, playing Sixsmith’s cyncicism beautifully, never making the man feel jaded, but also preserving an aura of perpetual pessimism. Even better, Coogan brings forth Sixsmith’s empathy and concern, as well as his determination and perseverance. No matter how well written the character, Steve Coogan vitalizes him.
Judi Dench is even better, finding her character’s sorrow and hope in equal doses, sometimes in the same line of dialogue. As one trite example of her skill, I don’t know that an actor has ever made me feel youthful exuberance the way Dench does when discussing Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma. While Coogan vitalizes his character, Dench breathes life into this entire film. If Philomena is special, it is because of Judi Dench.
The plot is well-paced. It’s formulaic and predictable. It also unabashedly manipulates emotion, but the action moves along quickly enough that these facts never seem serious flaws.
Technically, nothing stands out as exceptional, but nothing is strikingly bad either. The score is good. The editing is solid. Locations and sets are arranged well. Etc.
Philomena Lee’s faith highlights piety’s positives (hope in the face of grief, empathy for others, etc), which serves a nice contrast to the film’s depiction of Roscrea’s nuns.
Yet, it is easy to understand why some are uncomfortable with Philomena’s portrayal of the Catholic Church. This movie does not flatter it, not in the way it characterizes the nuns who stole Philomena’s son, or in the way it hints at the church’s cover up of the convent’s immorality. Frears and Coogan use Philomena, the character, to highlight the merits of faith, but they are nonetheless direct in their condemnation of church practices.
They judge the United States’ Republican Party pretty harshly, as well.
Finally, some of the dialogue is a bit too direct, a bit too on-point, which only heightens the sense that Philomena wants to make its viewer angry, aggrieved and determined.
Which is why I say this film lacks subtlety.
Yet, despite these flaws, Philomena is entertaining and moving. It’s not balanced, certainly, but it is good.