Posted January 23, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Best of 2013

Philomena: Simple but Deep

Philomena, starring Judi Dench as an Irish woman searching in America for her long-lost son, is a simple film. But it is put together by director Stephen Frears so superbly, with such grace and humanity, that you can’t help but fall in love with it.

Dame Judi Dench’s performance is Gibraltar-solid as usual, staying deeply true to the character in every scene. Dench is one of the few big-name stars who always puts character ahead of her own vanity. She forgoes every opportunity for movie-star flourishes. I am coming to the point where I think Dench is second only to Meryl Streep on the global screen-acting stage. She is an English treasure — a gift to the world.

In many scenes in Philomena, Dench acts almost completely with her eyes, the anguish in her eyes deep and haunting. The dialogue may be on the simple side most of the time, but Dench’s acting has a thousand complex nooks and crannies.

(Incidentally, Dench fans must not miss her dark, magnetic performance in 2006’s Notes on a Scandal — a great film and a great performance.)

Philomena is based on Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee (2009), which tells the true story of an Irish woman who was disowned by her family and locked away in a convent when she became pregnant as a teenage girl in the 1950’s. The neglect and exploitation she suffered at the convent is horrifying.

Example: She needs help during childbirth because the baby comes out breach. The senior nuns leave her to fend for herself, saying that her pain is just penance for her sins. If not for a kind-hearted young nun who steps in to help, there is a good chance that Philomena and/or her baby would have died.

The girls who survive unassisted childbirth must continue their slave labor at the convent, working seven days a week and allowed to see their children only one hour per day. Philomena is a deeply devoted mother, running eagerly to her baby each day at the appointed hour.

When her son is 5, the unimaginable happens. He is sold to a wealthy American couple who comes looking to adopt. She doesn’t even get to say goodbye. She watches the whole thing from a window, in hysterics. The agony of this ripped my heart out.

Philomena buries all this pain away. When she leaves the convent, gets married and has more children, she never tells anyone. But after her children are grown, she starts telling her story. She also visits the convent, hoping to track down her son. The convent refuses to help. Her plight comes to the attention of a famous journalist, Sixsmith, and so begins the odyssey that became the book and now the film.

When Philomena finally gets information about her son, the film takes on a whole new dimension. His life was far from ordinary, having hidden anguish that in some ways mirrors Philomena’s.


It is a joy to see a Stephen Frears film getting attention again. Frears was almost a household name in the 1980’s with the success of My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and especially Dangerous Liaisons (1988), which was on many Top 10 lists and received a number of big Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress (Glenn Close). But Frears has had difficulty getting noticed in America lately.

His last big film was The Queen (2006), which won global accolades, an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and an Oscar win for its star Helen Mirren. But since then, radio silence. Do you recognize these titles: Tamara Drewe, Cheri, Lay the Favorite? They are Frears’ last three films. All were distributed in America, but no one noticed them. Frears also made a film for HBO that no one noticed, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, which aired in October 2013.

Congratulations, Mr. Frears, on your return to the spotlight, where you belong.


William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.