Daniel O'Raw’s review published on Letterboxd:
The prolific Stephen Frears’ Philomena is a greatly moving piece of a mother, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) trying to find her son, 50 years after he was taken away from her, with the help of a disgraced journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). The film is wonderfully crafted by Frears but its strongest facet is the excellent script by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, which delivers beautifully both in terms of genuine emotion and well observed humour.
Philomena Lee is an elderly woman now living in England, she has a daughter but cannot forget about the son that was taken away from her 50 years previous, she confides in her daughter who then goes onto inform Sixsmith at a party. Here Martin is scornful of such “human interest” stories but later at home he decides he will do it, because he needs the work. They meet up and Philomena tells of how when she was a young girl she had a baby out of wedlock, naming him Anthony. The Irish-Catholic community she grew up in did not approve of this and thus sent Anthony off for adoption. They return to the convent in Roscrea where this occurred, but it is not of any help. At a pub afterwards, Martin discovers that children from the convent were adopted by Americans and taken back to America, so this leads him and Philomena to America to seek out what became of Anthony.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is the odd couple of Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, and their immensely enjoyable chemistry. Their performances require a great air of realism to suit their respective characters and the right amount of humor and emotion to successfully convey and do their characters justice. Coogan and Dench pull their characters off perfectly, and although some may feel its Judi Dench’s piece, the usually devoid of seriousness Steve Coogan delivers a fantastically committed earnest yet funny performance that conveys his passion in the project seeing that he did write the script. Dench is terrifically affecting in the role of Philomena, she is fragile, sweet and amusingly displays the kind of overly good-hearted nature we associate with the elderly. Coogan’s Sixsmith we could take to being us the viewer, as him and us both come fresh to the story and find out at the same time everything he discovers. We can certainly identify with his bemusement at Philomena’s over complimentary nature and anxiety over whether Anthony may be obese because of the size of the portions. And Coogan himself is just extremely likable, his delivery of humor is hilarious, a couple lines in the film actually do echo of his own Alan Partridge character, and his ability to do serious gains our respect and solemn attention to his thoughts and actions.
Personally I enjoyed the slight conflict between Philomena and Martin due to her complete faith in God and his cynical edge and utter bewilderment at people who do believe. It leads to a semi-serious arguments between the two, which are both funny and sad. And since each of them share the opposite belief, the audience can side with Philomena or Martin.
(Spoilers) The overly sweetness of Philomena will be tested when Martin finds her son but discovers that he died nine years previously from AIDS. Her character greatly contrasts with this tragic news and this makes her reaction all the more moving and heartbreaking, as Dench masterfully portrays Philomena’s great pain and regret while avoid melodrama and over sentimentality. However, Philomena is shocked but also heartened to realize that Anthony, who was renamed Michael Hess, was a key adviser in the Reagan administration.
If you do not know the true story behind Philomena, then the film is far less predictable than you might assume. And discovering that her son is deceased is one of the film’s biggest surprises. Philomena then wants to discover if her son ever thought of Ireland and after people telling her that he did not, she grows frustrated and angry and wishes to return home and tells Martin she does not want the story published. You feel her frustration and you sense her suffering and its genuinely touching that Martin starts to truly care about helping her rather than just making a great story out of it. As her son was gay and had a serious boyfriend, they try to track him down and when they do he reveals that Anthony thought often of Ireland and finding his mother and even visited Roscrea, ultimately revealing that he is buried there.
And so they return and come full circle and it makes for a great conclusion when Martin in all his rage confronts one of the older nuns who was there when Philomena was there, and rants at her for despicable actions, for not revealing the location of Philomena to her dying son. The nun remains convinced she did the right thing and Philomena forgives her, in one of the film’s many touching moments. Frears’ lovingly crafted direction with Coogan and Pope’s richly humorous and emotional script brought to life by the tremendous Judi Dench and Steve Coogan himself result in a film that contains real substance, full of horrible acts of the past and sadness but ultimately one of tolerating people, and of human decency and forgiveness.