Philomena – tears and laughter in equal measure

Movie review by Pat Kehoe.

The heartbreaking story of a young girl having her child taken from her and given up for adoption is the stuff of tragedy rather than comedy.

Dench and Coogan in Philomena
Dench and Coogan in Philomena

It may seem strange to report then that the hit movie Philomena, starring Judi Dench in the title role and Steve Coogan as journalist Martin Sixsmith, serves up just as many tears of laughter as tears of sorrow.

Make no mistake, this is an uplifting movie that had the audience laughing out loud one minute and then gasping with sadness and disbelief the next.
The film tells the story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who is now in 80 years old. When she was a teenager in the early 1950s, she became pregnant after a fling with a boy she met at a fairground.

Philomena was disowned by her family

Pregnancies outside of marriage were a source of disgrace at the time and Philomena was disowned by her family. She was taken in by a convent but had to pay a heavy price. She had to work in a laundry seven days a week and could only see her son for one hour a day.

Then when her son Anthony was three years old, she watched in horror as the nuns handed him over for adoption to an American couple. It was the last she ever saw of him.

After four years, Philomena was allowed to leave the convent and began to rebuild her life and have a family. However, she never forgot her son Anthony. On his 50th birthday she resolves to find out what happened to him.

Photo copyright - Caroline-Bonarde-Ucci_CC3
Her family enlist the help of British journalist Martin Sixsmith. Together they begin to uncover the truth.

Dark days of the 1950s

It makes uncomfortable viewing for the Catholic Church, first because of the way Philomena and girls like her were treated in the dark days of the 1950s, and then for the way the authorities tried to cover it up.

Philomena, however, is not judgmental, even though the truth of what happened infuriates Sixsmith and no doubt most of the audience.

The success of the movie lies not only in the power of the story…it is just as much in the way the story is told. The master stroke is the way Steve Coogan’s script manages to weave so much humour into the relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith.

Sixsmith is the cynical, jaded journalist who’s seen it all; Philomena retains a youthful exuberance that belies her age as she delights in telling him about the latest romantic fiction she’s been reading or the great choice of food on the hotel breakfast menu.

Both Coogan and Dench put in masterful performances in a movie that evokes sadness, laughter and anger in equal measure. Above all, it is both inspiring and uplifting.

Official trailer for Philomena.