Philomena (2013)

Wanna see some REAL “evil nuns? You’re welcome.

After failing in his ill-advised decision to be a politician, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) decides to return to the world that he knows he’ll safe be in, considering he’s practically been in an expert in it for 20+ years: Journalism. However, Sixsmith isn’t the type of journalist who goes out there and writes fluff for the mainstream. No siree! In fact, the type of writer he is an important one that gets straight to the facts, and doesn’t leave anything dangling. But all that changes once Sixsmith is given the opportunity to cover a “human interest story” concerning one Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). The story is simply this: When Philomena was a young and confused girl, she got knocked up. Seems normal, right? Well, at the time, she was an orphan who had a bunch of nuns breathing down her neck for every simple act she committed, which meant that she could either a.) take the kid and leave the orphanage, or b.) leave the kid at the orphanage to be looked at adoptive parents, while she still lived and worked at the orphanage, giving her the chance to see her kid every once and awhile. She decided to go with Option B, but it wasn’t before long until her own boy was snatched up from her, with little to no idea of who this family was, or even where they went. 50 years later, Philomena and Martin go out to discover the truth, which sadly, isn’t only just Philomena’s story, either.

Sightseeing with Steve Coogan may not be the most pleasant-filled afternoon you could ever have, but it's better than with somebody who ISN'T Steve Coogan, so it's at least a slightly better choice.
Sightseeing with Steve Coogan may not be the most pleasant-filled afternoon you could ever have, but it’s better than with somebody who ISN’T Steve Coogan, so it’s at least a slightly better choice.

There’s been a lot of talk, a lot of hype and a lot of buzz surrounding this movie and quite frankly, I don’t get it. Sure, it’s got two supreme, British heavy-weights in the forms of Steve Coogan and Dame Judi Dench in the lead roles, and is even a true-life story, but does that really mean it deserves all of the praise it’s been getting? Actually, let me rephrase that: Does it REALLY deserve an 89% (so far) on Rotten Tomatoes?!?!


But then again, I can see why.

Basically, here’s a movie that caters to the late-Holiday, Oscar-bait viewing audience: It ruffles some feathers, but features pleasant, happy-going thoughts about finding yourself, embracing your past, as well as not blaming any others for your problems that you’ve had before, or the ones that you have now. Wow! Wait a ticket! Didn’t that last one seem a bit negative to you? Well, that’s because it is.

What this movie does, and does well, if you choose to see it the way I did, was that it presents a view of these nuns in such a despicable, one-sided way, that the movie lost almost all credibility from me. Don’t be fooled, I am no heavy-duty Catholic that prays to God everyday before I go to bed, or wake up for school, or never misses Sunday Mass, however, I know an unfair viewpoint when I see one, and that’s what I see here. First of all, I don’t think anybody took into account the idea that not only were these nuns giving these girls a second chance at life, but made sure that they did actually get to see their kids. And heck, didn’t the nuns give these girls a choice to begin with? Sure, the girls could have easily left the orphanage without a place to eat, sleep or live at, and the extra-baggage of a newborn could have only added insult to injury, but it’s still the risk you take, right?

The fact that this movie brings this point up, but doesn’t really have much to say about it really ticked me off. Hear me out, I am in no way condoning these nuns for what it was that they did to these girls and to their children, however, that doesn’t get me past the fact that this movie doesn’t realize how hateful it sounds. Makes sense to make the Catholic church the enemy here, that’s totally understandable actually, but it doesn’t try to even come close to explaining their side of the story, or even the benefits one might have made from this decision to stick around the orphanage while the kids themselves were put-up for adoption.

I know plenty of you out there are already thinking how much of a terrible, distasteful human-being I truly am, but seriously, you know there’s a problem with your movie when you have nothing more to show for it other than a bunch of scenes in which both Judi Dench and Steve Coogan just do whatever comes to their mind first. And there’s actually nothing really wrong with that, because they’re both pros, but considering that’s the only aspect of this movie has to fall back-on, those scenes together between them both get real old, real quick and start to make you see all of the other problems with this flick.

Though the trailers and heck, even the poster up-above, may have you fooled into thinking that is a somewhat fun, hilarious, witty road-trip between two of Britain’s most famous beings of the big-screen (only the latter is true), the movie is totally different. It is a drama, and a very dark one at that, which I do applaud because it goes to some areas that I didn’t in the least bit expect it to end-up. But as dark as a movie can and wants to be, it has to be able to save it all by transition well between both sides of the story, and that is not what this does. Whenever there is supposed to be a moment made for comedic-effect, the movie relies on Dench to say something silly, or somewhat daft, just to show you that she’s an little ole’ cute lady, that you’re supposed to feel bad for no matter what mistakes she may, or may not have made in the past.

And while Philomena, the character, gets by mainly on Dench’s performance, you still can’t help but think what would have been if there was more attention to the script and the simple mechanics of the plot. I get that this story was adapted from a book, that was apparently based on a true-story, but for some odd reason, a lot of this just rang false to me, as if it was just Philomena going on the trip all by herself in real-life, but producers realized they needed a witty, sarcastic Brit along with her for the ride, so just call up Steve Coogan I guess, right?

Okay, nevermind. She is pretty damn cute. Just look at her!!
Okay, nevermind. She is pretty damn cute. Just look at her!!

Well, not to anybody’s surprise, Coogan ends up being the best thing about this movie, despite his character being one that’s quite frequently looked-down upon from this movie. Coogan does his usual dead-pan, dickish-like act where he says things that aren’t supposed to be funny, but because he’s such an uncomfortable asshole to be around, you can’t help but chuckle at him. However, Coogan does take this character a step-further in showing us a guy who is actually coming to realize that there’s more brewing beneath the surface of this story than ever before, and while he may not still care too much for “human interest” stories, he cares enough for Philomena to the point of where he wants her to be okay, once they find her boy and get a chance to talk to him. Though the movie definitely has an anti-journalistic mentality about itself going on here, it’s Coogan’s journalist-character whom ends up being the most interesting and believable.

As for Philomena, well, that’s why Judi Dench was cast in the first place, and as good as she is, even her amazing talents can’t save this gal from being just another simple, old woman who loves life, appreciates it all for what it’s worth and loves to throw wisdom down other people’s throats whenever she feels like it. I guess those type of old women are considered “cute”, and not the types you want to send away to a home in hopes of benefiting from the family house?

Consensus: Coogan and Dench do slightly save Philomena from a very painful, uncomfortable death, but the script’s pit-falls into drama, religion, comedy, homosexuality, sex, lies and no videotape, never work or even seem believable, despite this apparently being a “true story”. I’m doubting that one.

5 / 10 = Rental!!

Don't expect a hug, or hell, any sort of emotional support from the Coogs.
Don’t expect a hug, or hell, any sort of emotional support from the Coogs.

Photo’s Credit to:


  1. I still would like to see it. But so far no sign of it in Sarasota, FL. So maybe I will wait for the Netflix machinery to offer it. I mean Dench has been so good for so long as Bond’s boss, that I’d shell out a packet of dead presidents to see her in a different kind of role. It’s just that I won’t drive for a few hours to see it. Thanks for the review and details.

  2. Nice review, Dan.
    I think the one-sided depiction of the nuns was good, as there was more time to spend on the rest of the story and the hate you ended up having of them kept the energy alive in the movie. But your points are valid, now I think about them.

  3. I think you were a bit confused with what happen with when she got pregnant. She wasn’t an orphan but she was disowned by her family and that’s how she ended up with the nuns, think that’s important to remember how things used to be not so long ago really.

  4. Actually living in Ireland and growing up with some horrific stories about the nuns in the Magdalene Laundries (the last of which was only closed in the early nineties) I can confirm that these institutions were indeed as awful and soulless as they are presented. Young women, should they fall pregnant, were dispatched to these laundries to work because the shame of their sins were seen as too much for their families to bare, and were punished according to the rules of the Catholic Church. They would work in the laundries under the watchful nuns and once they’d given birth their babies were taken from them. A very high percentage of these women remained in the laundries following this and were used as cheap labour for the rest of their lives.

    The Irish government were aware of this cruel and inhumane system and even partly funded it. This is why the now separation of Church from State in this country is a huge step forward in the right direction, as the Catholic institutions held immense control over the people of this country for far too long.

    • It seems like there is improvement being made, which is definitely good. However, taken into the context with this movie, something didn’t quite feel right. Maybe it’s just something wrong with me.

      • Definitely, only this year the Irish government, following having a report commissioned on the laundries, made an official apology to the survivors for their part in the abuse these women suffered at the hands of the Church.

        I sincerely doubt there’s anything at all wrong with you, Dan! Other than perhaps a lack of patience for the continuous vilification of the Catholic Church. It can get tiresome when the bandwagon brigade make certain issues in vogue. Especially if they’re being used by filmmakers, perhaps primarily to elicit very emotional reactions from the audience. In that sense I can completely see where you’re coming from.

        All that aside it’s a great review, as always, it’s good to read a differing POV.

  5. Good review Dan, but I think I loved this way more than you! I can see your point about the story being mostly one-way traffic, but I still think the way that the nuns behaved was just awful. Sure, they let the mothers see their kids once a day, but this was the bare minimum they allowed. Rather like sticking them in the proverbial departure lounge while they sort out adoptive parents with a view to lining their habits with cash, it was actually extremely cruel of them to deny these women access to their children at all and then to send them away without their consent; it’s hard to defend the indefensible. Perhaps the nun’s argument is that they did it in the name of God etc. to help these girls atone for their ‘sins’, which is complete bullshit and the film rightly addresses this towards the end. Even human beings with the slightest bit of empathy can see this was totally wrong and completely immoral. Philomena surprisingly herself defends the nuns on more than one occasion and it is Coogan’s Sixsmith who is our mouthpiece in venting our disbelief and anger at what happened. Not to mention the fact that the nuns destroyed the records on purpose and then had the gall to deny Philomena the chance to meet her son for the last time before he died is just unbelieveable. You could say the film is anti-Catholic (I’m sure Mel Gibson would enjoy it), but I think it shows that it is more to do with traditional thinking as much as religion, since the modern-day nuns appear to be more sympathetic. I thought it was a superb film, with Dench and Coogan on fine form and I can’t honestly think of very little in the way of criticism.

    • You definitely did love this more than me, Andy! However, I see everything you’re saying. I am in no way, shape or form condoning the actions of these nuns, but I think the treatment this movie gave them, as well as some other characters in this flick was a little ridiculous and unfair. That was probably the point though, and if that’s the case, then it just didn’t hit me like it did to some others. Either way though, I have to give Coogan and Dench both credit for working through the cracks.

  6. I think you are showing against the tide on this one buddy, it’s being bugged up over here in the UK quite a lot. And I’m afraid the story is very much true. I haven’t seen the film but I will probably give it a go at some point

  7. I don’t know how you can doubt that this is a true story. There have been multiple accounts of the Catholic Church and how they treat the nuns. Philomena wasn’t an orphan, but disowned once she became pregnant. She had went to convent school for 12 years, not learning about the facts of life whatsoever; hence why she became pregnant and forced to join the nuns. When she gave birth to her son, the mother threatened her with damnation if she ever breathed a word. When Sixsmith went in for answers from the nuns, they wouldn’t give him any, so he discovered why: “For them it was not only a matter of sin and morality, but one of pounds, shillings and pence. At the time young Anthony Lee was born, I discovered that the Irish government was paying the Catholic church a pound a week for every woman in its care, and two shillings and sixpence for every baby.”

    The girls were not allowed to leave convent school unless they paid the nuns 100 pounds, so they essentially were forced to stay for three years, letting the Church make profits from their labor. Mothers who gave birth within those three years developed love and affection for their children, only to have them taken away after they would leave the school. Not to mention the Catholic Church being involved in an illicit baby trade: “From the end of the second world war until the 1970s, it considered the thousands of souls born in its care to be the church’s own property. With or without the agreement of their mothers, it sold them to the highest bidder. Every year, hundreds were shipped off to American couples who paid “donations” (in reality, fees) to the nuns. Few if any checks were made on the suitability of the adopting families – the only condition laid down by Archbishop McQuaid was that they should be practising Catholics.”

    If you feel that there is another side to the Catholic Church’s reasoning, that’s fine, however, I don’t think the filmmakers should try to explain the other side of the story in a case like this. That’s like trying to explain “Bull” Connor’s side of using high-pressure water jets and attack dogs on the children and bystanders of the Birmingham campaign. This isn’t the only time the Catholic Church’s behavior has come into questioning, with many cases being similar to this one; this was just a highly publicized one. Here’s Sixsmith’s article:

    • Thank you for sharing not only your thoughts, but the article as well. I’m not doubting that this story didn’t happen, but the way that it occurred and is told through this movie, just didn’t feel right to me. In fact, I’d go so far as to say maybe a darker, grittier movie would have done this some real good. At least in my eyes, that is. And apparently, my eyes are seeing the wrong things. But so be it!

  8. Nice review Dan, shame you didn’t really like it. I thought it was great. It did paint a pretty one-sided picture of the nuns, but as it’s Philomena’s story, not theirs, I don’t think it needed to be anything other than one-sided – it’s not a documentary. People have been so scared in the past to question religion and people who act in certain ways because of it, but what the nuns did was downright deplorable. For me, it wasn’t the whole selling the children thing that was the worst, it was the lying about not knowing where her son was, thus preventing her from seeing him before he died, that really infuriated me. Still, I can appreciate that this isn’t a film for everyone and it does seem to be getting more favourable reviews here in the UK, which is interesting. I recommend The Magdelene Sisters for similar, but less light-hearted subject matter.

  9. If you’re not Irish then maybe the background of this story will be lost in translation. Philomena wasn’t living in an orphanage, it was a Magdalene laundry, basically a prison where teenage girls who gave birth out of wedlock were sent to work as slaves. My own Aunt spent time in one of these ghastly places, having given birth to a boy (following a sexual assault no less) and, like Philomena, the child was adopted by Americans. In the nineties she attempted to track down her son and the nuns completely refused to cooperate with her. Through a long and costly investigation she finally tracked her son down only a year before her death. The events portrayed here are wholly accurate and there are few Irish people who don’t know someone effected by this scandal.
    As for the light-hearted tone, I’m happy they chose this approach as women like Philomena would rather watch this sort of movie than a heavy, grim drama. It reminds me of the scene in Sullivan’s Travels when Joel McCrea watches the tramps enjoying cartoons. In fact, this movie is practically a remake of Sullivan’s Travels with Coogan in the McCrea role.

  10. Damn I am definitely one of those that would disagree with you on this.

    There seems to be a detail that you missed that hinged a lot of your feelings about the film. You say that the girls all could have left but Philomena explains in the film that they had to serve out a certain amount of years to pay back for the nun’s care or pay 100 pounds to take their baby and leave. I don’t think you caught that or else you wouldn’t think that they had such an easy option to leave their situation.

    Also, just from my point of view I felt that they presented two fair sides of Catholicism with the nuns showing the ugly side, but Philomena’s unwavering faith and willingness to forgive the positive side. I also didn’t think that Sixsmith’s atheism was portrayed as wrong by any means. His anger seems saner than her faith at the end. Both sides got a fair shake in my eyes.

    I really loved it though. Maybe it was because I saw it before the hype and had little to no expectations. Sorry you didn’t connect as much as I did, but still a great review as usual.

  11. There’s a lot of ways one can approach this film. Yes I agree it is one-sided because it is about Philomena and Martin only, and not the nuns. However what I came away with is Judi Dench’s character. She is a model of forgiveness. Steve Coogan represents the anger, but it was her character that I walked away remembering.

  12. For most of us with a brief knowledge about the history of the Catholic church, we already know that nuns and the Catholic belief back in the 1950s were very harsh and somewhat inhumane by today’s standards. We also know that harsh penance against “sinners” was what the nuns were raised to believe and uphold, and that was acceptable in society back in their day. The movie didn’t need to hold the audience’s hand and explain this side of the story to us. If it had, the movie would be too long and dumbed down for the ignorant. Like I said, most intelligent people know the nun’s side of the story. If telling the truth about Philomena’s story is what you would call “condemnation” and “unfair” on the nuns, then that’s your loss. No matter which point of view you look at, the nuns committed a terrible wrong to Philomena.

    Sorry if I sound rude or disrespectful Dan. I just disagree so completely with your review that it made me very upset (but that’s a good thing, at least you’re eliciting an actual emotional response). Philomena is far from my favourite movie of 2013, but I still think it was a powerfully emotional one with real beauty within. Deep down, I guess it just didn’t click with you, which no matter how you spin it, is a fault with the film and not the viewer. It did click with me though, and I adore it.

  13. By the way, she couldn’t leave the “orphanage” because it was a convent, and the nuns demanded an exorbitant amount of money before she could leave (as payment for board, food, and delivering the baby). Even then, she’d have nowhere to go. Also, her father abandoned her at the convent because he was ashamed of her pregnancy. She was disowned, with no money, and left there against her will.

  14. Hi Dan,

    I’ve come a little late to this reaction. While I agree with you that there is nothing particularly special about this story – although I enjoyed the performance of Dench – I also think that there was nothing particularly unfair about the depiction of the religious sisters in this movie.

    I am not making an argument here, I suppose, but rather an assertion.


  15. You were right Dan when you warned me that your review for Philomena was quite a miserable piece. Lol…..looks like you really didn’t like this movie. Anyways reviews are meant to be subjective and seamlessly convey your feelings of a particular movie, as long as one has adequate knowledge of film. I also believe that reviews are meant to influence your readers towards your views of a film. Roger Ebert and many other wonderful critics did this with great success. So, in that aspect it’s a very good review, even though it’s poles apart to my version.

    Also, I completely empathize with people who just don’t get certain widely appreciated films. I for instance, abhor Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia in spite of multiple viewings, and just can’t understand what’s all the fuss about those two. Now when I don’t enjoy those two classics, why can’t you care less about Philomena – a film that has just released.

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