Film Review: “Philomena” starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench

I belong to a Film Club which meets every 2 months and a few days ago our film of choice was Philomena.

I’ve now watched it four times in as many days, and during that time I’ve been haunted by the characters, by the story, and by what it tell us about life and about what it means to be human.

I haven’t read the novel by Martin Sixsmith, but it does seem to me from the Amazon reviews of the novel, that Steve Coogan’s choice to make a film of the story, focussing on the relationship between Philomena and Martin Sixsmith in their search for Philomena’s long-lost son, was an inspired choice, and created something far more powerful, moving and effective than the novel which focused on the life of Philomena’s son Michael Hess (born Anthony Lee).

Our film club group had a lively discussion about the film after viewing it, and we examined different angles, with views expressed that see the events from both sides. I think what I like most of all about the film is that it avoids a black and white view of Philomena’s story, which could so easily be “cruelly wronged woman against evil Catholic nuns” (beautifully parodied by Steve Coogan early in the film when he says, “Evil is good. I mean – story-wise.”) The message of the film is far more subtle and complex than that, and brilliantly conveyed in the dynamics of the relationship between Philomena (portrayed by Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan).

And of course the film contains some incisive dialogue about the Catholic Church. As I consider the message I’m left with this thought; how dangerous the challenges and demands of an authoritarian religious faith can be; leading some along the path of harshness, cruelty and judgementalism, and others into the highest reaches of self-sacrifice, holiness and goodness. It’s almost as if, behind it all, lurks the complexity and unaccountability of human psychology, which we can never ignore.

This Guardian article is the best review of the film that I’ve come across which acknowledges this subtlety and the far deeper observations that are being made about the Catholic Church.