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Movie review: 'Philomena'

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Every year there’s that one movie that’s nominated for the Best Picture Oscar that seems to come from out of the blue. Sometimes they are legitimately bad movies, but oftentimes they are films that are merely good, not amazing. In fact, it is primarily for this reason that the Academy changed the rules for voting on the Best Picture nominees a few years ago, as nominating ten films let in to the race too many mediocre films to serve as fillers. This year, that movie is “Philomena”, a very sweet, well-acted story that isn’t much more than just that.

Directed by Stephen Frears, “Philomena” is based on a true story and stars Judi Dench in the titular role. As a teenager in early 50s Ireland, Philomena was an unwed mother, sent away by her family to live in a convent where she and the other young single mothers did dirty work such as the laundry and were only allowed to see their children briefly once a day. But the nuns at the convent, believing that what these girls had done was a grievous sin, had no problem taking their children away from them, and as a toddler Philomena’s son Anthony was sold into adoption.

Over the years Philomena returned to the Abbey to inquire about the whereabouts of her son, with no luck. On what would have been his fiftieth birthday, her daughter’s chance meeting with the cynical, down-on-his-luck journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) causes her to decide to more actively dig into her son’s whereabouts. And while Martin, who is only in it to potentially find a good story, and Philomena, who is a loving, light-hearted, and deeply religious woman, are opposite personalities, they both learn from each other as they embark on the journey of a lifetime.

Coogan and Dench are both wonderfully sweet and funny in their roles; at times, Dench will break your heart, as will actress Sophie Kennedy Clark, who plays young Philomena. However, the character doesn’t make for one of Dench’s more memorable performances, although she is admirable, as the climax proves, and her cheerfulness and forthrightness is infectious. The juxtaposition between Martin and Philomena’s personalities is also portrayed well and is the driving aspect of the story; there’s a lot of chemistry between the two, and they wholly draw the viewer in to their lives from the very first scenes.

The story also has some delightful turns, although toward the end it becomes rather predictable and it isn’t hard to tell where the story is going. But its message of forgiveness is powerfully conveyed, proving that retribution is not essential to finding a resolution, and the fact that it is based on true events, events that are hard to believe actually occurred in the last century, makes it all the more shocking and moving.

Watching “Philomena”, one would never think it would be up for any Oscars, or that it deserves to be. Without the talents of such fine actors as Coogan and Dench, it probably wouldn’t be as emotional or involving a film. And even though it isn’t one of the better films of the year, the fact that it did garner a Best Picture nomination when there had been hardly any hype surrounding it says something for how the story must have affected those who saw it.

Runtime: 98 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, and sexual references.

Check out showtimes for this movie and more at the following St. Louis-area theaters:

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