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Philomena (2013)

The Weinstein Company
Blu-ray Disc Released: 4/15/2014

All Ratings out of



Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/28/2014

You don't have to be an Academy Award devotee to note that many of the recent Best Picture nominees are based on true stories. (This past year, six of the nine nominees met this criteria.) So much so that I would like to see the category split in two with true stories having their own grouping, while actual fiction occupies another. And with those true stories, we are often left wondering where the filmmakers took artistic license. For years, I've said that these movies should be required to have "Pop-up Video" graphics which, at the appropriate times, would read, "Yes, this really happened." For many of these films offer tales which are astonishing, and we want to know if they really happened. Or, in the case of Philomena, we hope that they didn't.

Philomena opens by introducing us to Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a journalist, late of the BBC, who is currently unemployed. While at a party, he is approached by Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), who wants to share her mother's story. Martin meets Jane's mother, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), and learns that when the woman was a teen, she became pregnant and was sent to live in a special convent. There, she gave birth to a child and was forced to work while the boy awaited adoption. The child was adopted and Philomena never saw him again. Sensing an important story of corruption, Martin accompanies Philomena to the convent, where they are curtly told that the records were destroyed in a fire. However, Martin is able to get a lead and soon he and Philomena are on their way to America in search of her long lost son.

To say that the story in Philomena is harrowing would be an understatement. The young women at the convent were allowed a few minutes a day to interact with and play with their children, all the while knowing that the place was really an orphanage. When the children were adopted, they had no further contact. In addition, Martin finds an overgrown cemetery occupied by the graves of young girls and babies. The story becomes infuriating when we see how the nuns at the convent show no remorse for their behavior, feeling that the young women were being punished for their sins. Their actions grow even more questionable when they refuse to cooperate with Martin's investigation or admit to any wrongdoing. A revelation during the finale further amplifies the perceived lack of compassion on their parts.

While the true story aspects of Philomena are what will pull you in, it's the characters who really shine here. Philomena herself is the kind of character who we rarely see in movies -- someone who seems real. She's a very simple woman who loves romance novels. While she's no fool, she's impressed by rather commonplace things in America and the scene in which she wants to watch pay-per-view movies is hilarious. Martin is also well-defined. At the outset, he's depressed and defeated due to the loss of his job. He sees Philomena's story as something which could get him back into the world of journalism. At first, he has no personal stake in the story, and is, in fact, quite rude to Philomena. But, as he goes on this emotional journey with her, he becomes very invested, to the point that he defends her honor even when she won't.

Philomena is a movie which exists in two worlds. On the one hand, it is a small, intimate character study. On the other hand, it offers an important story which needs to be told. Director Stephen Frears handles both very well and delivers a movie which will catch you off-guard as it packs an emotional punch. Philomena's story is sad and parts of it will anger you. At the same time, her somewhat naive joie de vive make her a lovable character and the movie contains some funny moments as well. If the Academy is going to insist on continuing to recognize movies based on real-life events, I won't mind if they are movies as satisfying as Philomena.

Philomena will surely spark lively debate in Catholic households on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of The Weinstein Company. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing no distracting grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look OK, but the image is a tad dark at times. The level of detail is acceptable and the depth is fine. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.5 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Being a quiet drama, we don't get many dynamic audio effects here. The exterior scenes do provide some notable stereo effects and the moments in the airport provide some surround effects. The score sounds fine and the dialogue is always audible.

The Philomena Blu-ray Disc contains a few extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Steve Coogan and Screenwriter Jeff Pope. "A Conversation with Judi Dench" (9 minutes) allows the actress a chance to discuss the history of her acting career, from her first inklings of acting to her recent roles in the James Bond films. "The Real Philomena Lee" (3 minutes) gives an overview of the story and shows the real Philomena and her daughter at a screening of the film. "Q&A With Steve Coogan" (24 minutes) has the actor fielding questions about the movie at a screening in Los Angeles in December 2013.

Review Copyright 2014 by Mike Long