Philomena (film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed byStephen Frears
Screenplay by
Based onThe Lost Child of Philomena Lee
by Martin Sixsmith
Produced by
CinematographyRobbie Ryan
Edited byValerio Bonelli
Music byAlexandre Desplat
Distributed by20th Century Fox[1]
Release dates
  • 31 August 2013 (2013-08-31) (Venice)
  • 1 November 2013 (2013-11-01) (United Kingdom)
Running time
98 minutes[2]
  • France
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
Budget$12 million[3]
Box office$100.1 million[3]

Philomena is a 2013 drama film[2] directed by Stephen Frears, based on the 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith. The film stars Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, an elderly woman who has been searching for her son for 50 years, and Sixsmith's (Steve Coogan) efforts to help her find him.

The film gained critical praise and received several international film awards. Coogan and Jeff Pope won Best Screenplay at the 70th Venice International Film Festival,[4][5][6] while the film was also awarded the People's Choice Award Runner-Up prize at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.[7] The film was nominated for four Oscars at the 86th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress (for Dench), and Best Original Score. It was also nominated for four BAFTA Awards and three Golden Globe Awards.


London-based journalist Martin Sixsmith has lost his job as a government adviser. He is approached at a party by the daughter of Philomena Lee. She suggests that he write a story about her mother, who was forced to give up her toddler son Anthony nearly fifty years ago. Though Sixsmith is initially reluctant to write a human interest story, he meets Philomena and decides to investigate her case.

In 1951, Philomena became pregnant after having sex with a man she did not know at a county fair, and was sent by her father to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea in Ireland. After giving birth, she was forced to work in the convent laundry for four years, with little contact with her son. The nuns gave her son up for adoption without giving Philomena a chance to say goodbye. She kept her lost son a secret from her family for nearly fifty years. She believed the man at the fair was married to her mothers neighbour and that he had been watching her from afar, often following her home at nights.

Martin and Philomena begin their search at the convent. The nuns claim that the adoption records were destroyed in a fire years earlier; they did not, however, lose the contract she was forced to sign decades ago forbidding her from contacting her son, which Martin considers suspicious. At a pub, the locals tell Martin that the convent burnt the records deliberately, and that most of the children were sold for £1,000 each to wealthy Americans.

Martin's investigation reaches a dead end in Ireland, but he receives a promising lead from the United States and invites Philomena to accompany him there. His contacts help him discover that Anthony was renamed Michael A. Hess, who became a lawyer and senior official in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. When Philomena notices Martin in the background of a photo of Michael, he remembers that he met him years earlier while working in the US. They also learn that he has been dead for eight years.

Philomena decides she wants to meet people who knew Michael and learn more about him from them. They visit a former colleague of Michael's and discover that Michael was gay and died of AIDS. They also visit his sister Mary, who was adopted at the same time from the convent, and learn that they were both emotionally and physically abused by their adoptive parents, and hear about his partner Pete Olsson.

After avoiding Martin's attempts to contact him, Pete agrees to talk to Philomena. He shows Philomena some videos of his life with Michael. To Martin and Philomena's surprise, they see footage of Michael, dated shortly before he died, at the Abbey where he was adopted, and Pete explains that, although he never told his family, Michael had privately wondered about his birth mother all his life, and had returned to Ireland in his final months to try to find her. Pete informs them that the nuns had told Michael that his mother had abandoned him and that they had lost contact with her. He also reveals that, against his parents' wishes, he had Michael buried in the convent's cemetery.

Philomena and Martin go to the convent to ask them where Michael's grave is. Despite Philomena's pleas, Martin angrily breaks into the private quarters and argues with an elderly nun, Sister Hildegarde McNulty, who worked at the convent when Anthony was forcibly adopted. He accuses her of lying to Anthony and denying him the chance to finally reunite with Philomena, purely out of self-righteousness. Hildegarde is unrepentant, saying that losing her son was Philomena's penance for having sex out of wedlock.

Martin demands an apology, telling her that what she did was un-Christian, but is speechless when Philomena instead chooses to forgive her of her own volition. Philomena then asks to see her son's grave, where Martin tells her he has chosen not to publish the story. Philomena tells him to publish it anyway.


In addition to the main cast, Sophie Kennedy Clark plays a young Philomena,[8] Kate Fleetwood plays a young Sister Hildegarde, Simone Lahbib plays Kate Sixsmith, Cathy Belton plays Sister Claire, Charlie Murphy plays Kathleen, Amy McAllister plays Sister Anunciata, Sean Mahon plays Michael, Philomena's son,[9] and Peter Hermann plays Pete Olsson.


The score of the film was composed by Alexandre Desplat, which was released on 25 October 2013 by Decca Records.[10]


Box office[edit]

Philomena grossed $37.7 million in the United States and Canada, and $62.4 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $100.1 million, against a production budget of $12 million.[3]

In the film's second weekend of release, it grossed $4.5 million from 835 cinemas, finishing ninth.[11]

Critical response[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 90% based on 198 reviews, with an average rating of 7.74/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "Based on a powerful true story and led by note-perfect performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, Philomena offers a profoundly affecting drama for adult filmgoers of all ages."[12] At Metacritic, the film received a weighted average score of 77 out of 100, based on 42 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[13] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A" on an A+ to F scale.[11]

In The New York Times, Stephen Holden described the film as "so quietly moving that it feels lit from within." He wrote: "That [Dench] makes you believe her character has the capacity to forgive provides the movie with a solid moral center." He found the film's political viewpoint particularly sophisticated:[14]

Philomena has many facets. It is a comedic road movie, a detective story, an infuriated anticlerical screed, and an inquiry into faith and the limitations of reason, all rolled together. Fairly sophisticated about spiritual matters, it takes pains to distinguish faith from institutionalized piety. It also has a surprising political subtext in its comparison of the church's oppression and punishment of unmarried sex ... with homophobia and the United States government's reluctance to deal with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Kelly Torrance of The Washington Times found that the film "ultimately feels false", with the filmmakers succumbing to the temptation to focus on the "lessons" the story holds at the expense of the human story itself.[15] Justin Chang, of Variety, called the film a "smug but effective middlebrow crowdpleaser." While noting Dench's "fine, dignified performance", he observed that much of the humor here comes at the expense of Dench's character. "[I]t's hard not to wonder if the writers are simply scoring points off [Philomena]."[16]

Rex Reed of The New York Observer gave the film a glowing review and named it the Best Film of 2013, saying: "It's profoundly moving and thoroughly mind provoking, but despite the poignant subject matter, I promise you will not leave Philomena depressed. I've seen it twice and felt exhilarated, informed, enriched, absorbed and optimistic both times. This is filmmaking at its most refined. I will probably forget most of what happened at the movies in 2013, but I will never forget Philomena."[17]

The New York Post's film critic Kyle Smith judged the film "another hateful and boring attack on Catholics."[18] He called it "90 minutes of organized hate" and wrote that: "A film that is half as harsh on Judaism or Islam, of course, wouldn't be made in the first place but would be universally reviled if it were."[18] Philomena Lee responded to Smith with an open letter that said:[19]

The story it tells has resonated with people not because it's some mockery of ideas or institutions that they're in disagreement with. This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith.

Producer Harvey Weinstein took out a full-page colour advertisement in The New York Times that quoted some favourable reviews and part of Smith's review accompanied by an excerpt from Lee's letter, and invited the public to make its own decision.[20] Smith had accused several other films that were produced by Weinstein of anti-Catholicism, including The Magdalene Sisters (2002), The Butcher Boy (1998) and Priest (1995).[20]


The film and its cast and crew have earned several award nominations, including four Academy Award nominations and four British Academy Film Award nominations.[21] Dench and Coogan received nominations for Best Actress and Best Actor, respectively, at the British Independent Film Awards.[22] Dench also garnered nominations for Best Actress from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, London Film Critics' Circle, Satellite Awards and Screen Actors Guild Awards.[23][24][25][26] Philomena garnered three nominations at the 71st Golden Globe Awards,[27] and also won the David di Donatello for Best European Film.[28]

Historical authenticity[edit]

The film employs artistic licence with the real-life events.[29] The visual blog Information is Beautiful deduced that, while taking creative licence into account, the film was 70.9% accurate when compared to real-life events due to "the (understandable) dramatic insertion of journalist Martin Sixsmith into the main plot line and big liberties with what Philomena actually knew and didn't know about her lost son". Philomena did not accompany Sixsmith to Washington to find her son, and her son's partner was keen to meet her and flew to the UK where they met in Sixsmith's house.[30]

The film's principal antagonist, Sister Hildegard McNulty, existed in real life but the movie took broad artistic liberty to portray her in a negative light. The final scene in which McNulty chastises Philomena for carnality from her wheelchair is fictional. McNulty died in 1995, nine years before Sixsmith began his investigation into the Abbey; the two never met in real life.[31] Sister Julie Rose, the order's assistant congregational leader, said: "We do feel that the film, even though it is not a documentary, does not tell the whole truth and in many ways is very misleading."[32] An archival 1986 RTÉ interview of Sr Hildegarde depicts a woman weeping over many of the mothers who were in her care.[33]

In a 2009 article for The Guardian, Sixsmith claims that in mid-twentieth-century Ireland, the Catholic church forced unwed mothers in their care to give up their children for adoption.[34] Following pressure to do so, a Commission was formed by the Government of Ireland to investigate Mother and Baby Homes in 2015.[35]

Sixsmith has said that Coogan's portrayal of him shared his "intolerance of injustice in all walks of life", and his admiration for a woman like Philomena who has the strength to rise above this. However, he is less angry than his on-screen version and is an agnostic rather than an atheist.[36]


  1. ^ "20th Century FOX UK - Philomena". Archived from the original on 2 February 2020. Retrieved 2 February 2020.
  2. ^ a b "Philomena (12A)". Pathé. British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved 27 February 2014.
  3. ^ a b c "Philomena (2013)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 17 May 2014.
  4. ^ "Venezia 70". labiennale. Archived from the original on 28 July 2013. Retrieved 26 July 2013.
  5. ^ "Venice film festival 2013: the full line-up". The Guardian. London. 25 July 2013. Retrieved 26 July 2013.
  6. ^ "Official Awards of the 70th Venice Film Festival". Archived from the original on 21 September 2013. Retrieved 8 September 2013.
  7. ^ "TIFF 2013: 12 Years a Slave wins film fest's top prize". Toronto Star, 15 September 2013.
  8. ^ Guiducci, Mark (22 November 2013). "10 Minutes with Philomena's Sophie Kennedy Clark". Vogue. Archived from the original on 12 August 2014. Retrieved 12 August 2014.
  9. ^ Grunert, Andrea. "Andrea Grunert interviews Irish actor Sean Mahon, mid filming 'Philomena' with Stephen Frears". Vulgo. Archived from the original on 21 March 2014. Retrieved 12 August 2014.
  10. ^ "Philomena (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)". Amazon. Retrieved 8 February 2014.
  11. ^ a b Stewart, Andrew (1 December 2013). "Thanksgiving Box Office: 'Catching Fire,' 'Frozen' Serve Up Holiday Records". Variety. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  12. ^ "Philomena (2013)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  13. ^ "Philomena Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  14. ^ Holden, Stephen (21 November 2013). "Nasty Nuns Can't Shake a Faith". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 August 2015.
  15. ^ Torrance, Kelly (28 November 2013). "Philomena". Washington Times. Retrieved 10 April 2014.
  16. ^ Chang, Justin (31 August 2013). "Venice Film Review: 'Philomena'". Retrieved 10 April 2014.
  17. ^ Reed, Rex (19 November 2013). "Seek and Ye Shall Find: Philomena Is The Most Powerful Movie of the Year". The New York Observer. Retrieved 10 April 2014.
  18. ^ a b Smith, Kyle (21 November 2013). "'Philomena' another hateful and boring attack on Catholics". New York Post. Retrieved 13 December 2013.
  19. ^ Fleming, Mike Jr. "The Real 'Philomena' Answers New York Post Critic Who Condemns Her Film As An Attack On Catholics And Republicans". Retrieved 12 August 2015.
  20. ^ a b Smith, Kyle (7 December 2013). "Harvey Weinstein's 'Philomena' attack ad". New York Post. Retrieved 11 August 2015.
  21. ^ Reynolds, Simon; Harris, Jamie (8 January 2014). "BAFTA Film Awards 2014 - nominations in full". Digital Spy. Retrieved 8 January 2014.
  22. ^ "Nominations 2013". British Independent Film Awards. 11 November 2013. Archived from the original on 5 December 2013. Retrieved 3 December 2013.
  23. ^ Gray, Tim (16 December 2013). "Critics Choice Awards: '12 Years,' 'American Hustle' Earn 13 Nominations Each". Variety. Retrieved 16 December 2013.
  24. ^ "London Critics' Circle Announces 2014 Film Awards Nominations". London Film Critics Circle. 17 December 2013. Retrieved 17 December 2013.
  25. ^ "2013 Nominations". International Press Academy. Retrieved 3 December 2013.
  26. ^ Breznican, Anthony (11 December 2013). "SAG Award Noms: '12 Years a Slave' leads while 'The Butler' surprises". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 11 December 2013.
  27. ^ Reynolds, Simon (12 December 2013). "Golden Globes nominations 2013: Movies list in full". Digital Spy. Retrieved 12 December 2013.
  28. ^ Lyman, Eric (10 June 2014). "Italy's David di Donatello Awards Honor 'The Great Beauty,' 'The Human Capital'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 7 July 2016.
  29. ^ McGreevy, Ronan. "Nuns say critical scene in 'Philomena' was made up". The Irish Times. Retrieved 7 February 2021.
  30. ^ "Based on a True True Story? Scene-by-scene Breakdown of Hollywood Films". Information Is Beautiful. Retrieved 28 July 2019.
  31. ^ Sneed, Tierney (22 November 2013). "'Philomena' Draws Catholic Backlash". Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  32. ^ Mac Donald, Sarah (10 November 2013). "Philomena nuns criticise film as 'very misleading'". Retrieved 18 April 2020.
  33. ^ McGreevy, Ronan. "Nuns say critical scene in 'Philomena' was made up". The Irish Times. Retrieved 19 February 2021.
  34. ^ The Catholic church sold my child | Life and style, Martin Sixsmith, The Guardian, 19 September 2009, Retrieved on 22 May 2014.
  35. ^ Ireland: ‘Tuam babies’ mass grave allegations must spark urgent investigation, Amnesty International June 5, 2014
  36. ^ Sixsmith, Martin (10 January 2014). "Philomena: the real-life story behind the film". Retrieved 7 February 2021.

External links[edit]