Jeremiah Dollins’s review published on Letterboxd:
As I watched PHILOMENA, the excellent film from Stephen Frears, I found myself entranced by Judi Dench's face. There's a scene, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, in which Steve Coogan's Martin Sixsmith asks Philomena to pose for a photo. She asks him if she should have a happy or serious expression. He requests that she take one of each. This scene represents the entire film, really. It's all about Philomena's expression, and the way Dench's beautiful face captures the whirlwind of emotions at the heart of this simple, yet complex woman.
Based on a true story, PHILOMENA is about this woman's search to discover the whereabouts of a son she had as a teenager in a Catholic monastery, who was sold out from under her by nuns. Fifty years of Catholic guilt kept Philomena from pursuing her child, born from a night of incredible passion and abandon. And this same guilt awakens in her a need for answers. Her daughter connects her with a disgraced journalist, Sixsmith, and the two pursue the truth in Ireland and America.
The story is well-told, economical, and full of surprises. But they are not the traditional plot surprises that Philomena herself loves to read about in her trashy romance novels. They are the surprises of character revelation and reaction. As I said earlier, Dench's face is a marvel. And every time Frears decides to shoot her in closeup, her eyes watering with a mixture of hope, fear, regret, anger, and love, it is breathtaking. She becomes a true symbol of Catholicism and Christian faith as opposed to the black-and-white faith of the organized church.
Coogan plays Sixsmith with a simmering anger. He is angry at losing a respected position, being played for a fool and set up for a fall by another societal organization -- journalism -- he put so much faith in. As he enters Philomena's world with his bulldog instincts, he sees it as a chance for redemption, and maybe a little revenge. But spending time with Philomena forces him to see the world differently, and himself. Of course, the use of character foils like these is an obvious technique, but when done so well, like it is here, it's a thing of beauty.
More than anything, PHILOMENA is an actor's showcase, especially for Dench, who digs deep with this role. She manages to find something spiritually profound in Philomena. In other hands, this character could be cloying, with all her homespun ideas, positivity, and Hallmark card moments. But instead, she comes across as a woman fighting against her darker nature to find the beauty in humanity. And the true beauty of all this is that she never has to say any of it. Her face says it all.