Philomena (film)


Theatrical release poster
Directed by Stephen Frears
Produced by
Screenplay by
Based on The Lost Child of Philomena Lee
by Martin Sixsmith
Music by Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography Robbie Ryan
Edited by Valerio Bonelli
Distributed by
Release dates
  • 31 August 2013 (2013-08-31) (Venice)
  • 1 November 2013 (2013-11-01) (United Kingdom)
  • 22 November 2013 (2013-11-22) (United States)
Running time
98 minutes[1]
  • United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $12 million[2]
Box office $100.1 million[2]

Philomena is a 2013 British drama film directed by Stephen Frears, based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith. Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, it tells the true story of Philomena Lee's 50-year search for her forcibly adopted son and Sixsmith's efforts to help her find him. The film was co-produced in the United States and the United Kingdom. It gained critical acclaim and received several international film awards. Coogan and Jeff Pope won Best Screenplay at the 70th Venice International Film Festival.[3][4][5] It was also awarded the People's Choice Award Runner-Up prize at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.[6]

The film was nominated in four categories at the 86th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay for Coogan and Pope, Best Actress for Dench, and Best Original Score for Desplat. 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 in writing a human interest story, he meets Philomena and decides to investigate her case.

In 1951, Philomena became pregnant 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.

Martin and Philomena begin their search at the convent. The nuns claim that the adoption records were lost 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 to be too convenient to be coincidence. 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 rich Americans.

Martin's enquiries reach 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 recognises Martin in the background of a photo of Michael, he realises 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 about his lover 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 efforts to stop him, Martin aggressively storms into the private quarters and confronts an elderly nun, Sister Hildegarde McNulty, who worked at the convent when Anthony was forcibly adopted. He accuses her of lying to a dying man and denying him the chance to finally reunite with his mother, purely out of self-righteousness. Hildegarde is unrepentant, saying that losing her son was Philomena's penance. Martin demands an apology, telling her that what she did was un-Christian, but is astonished 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,[7] Kate Fleetwood plays a young Sister Hildegarde,, Amy McAllister plays Sister Anunciata,, Sean Mahon plays Michael, Philomena's son[8] , and Peter Hermann plays Peter Olsson.


The score of the film was composed by Alexandre Desplat.[9]

Philomena (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Soundtrack album by Alexandre Desplat
Released 25 November 2013 (2013-11-25)
Genre Film score
Length 51:06
Label Decca
Producer Alexandre Desplat
Alexandre Desplat chronology
Venus in Fur
The Monuments Men


Critical response

Philomena received mostly positive reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 92% based on reviews from 170 critics, with an average score of 7.9/10. The site's 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."[10] At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 76 based on 41 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews."[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:[12]

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.[13] 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]."[14]

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."[15]

The New York Post's film critic Kyle Smith claimed the film was "another hateful and boring attack on Catholics."[16] He called it "90 minutes of organized hate" and claimed 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."[16] Philomena Lee responded to Smith with an open letter that said:[17]

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 color advertisement in The New York Times that quoted some favorable reviews and part of Smith's review accompanied by an excerpt from Lee's letter, and invited the public to make its own decision.[18] Smith had accused several other films that were produced by Weinstein for anti-Catholicism, including The Magdalene Sisters (2002), The Butcher Boy (1998), and Priest (1995) - all critically acclaimed movies.[19]

An article by Martin Sixsmith and published in The Guardian reiterates much of the portrayal of a scheme carried out by Catholic organizations in Ireland that enriched the Church through coerced adoptions and forced labour of unwed mothers.[20]

Box office

As of 7 May 2014, the film has grossed $37.7 million in North America and $62.4 million in other territories, for a combined gross of $100.1  million.[2]


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 Actor and Best Actress 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]


The film employs artistic license with the real life events. Sister Hildegard McNulty, the principal antagonist in the film, is depicted as having met with journalist Sixsmith after he started working on the story. In reality, McNulty died in 1995, and Sixsmith only began his investigation in 2004. The final scene in which a wheelchair-bound McNulty chastises Philomena for carnality is also artistic license.[29] According to a Daily Mail article: "A spokesman for film-maker Pathe said although some scenarios were changed for 'dramatic purposes', the story was 'materially true'. He said the nuns were contacted twice about the screenplay last year but they failed to send a formal reply."[30]

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.[31]


  1. "Philomena (12A)". Pathé. British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved 27 February 2014.
  2. 1 2 3 "Philomena (2013)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 17 May 2014.
  3. "Venezia 70". labiennale. Retrieved 26 July 2013.
  4. "Venice film festival 2013: the full line-up". The Guardian. London. 25 July 2013. Retrieved 26 July 2013.
  5. "Official Awards of the 70th Venice Film Festival". Retrieved 8 September 2013.
  6. "TIFF 2013: 12 Years a Slave wins film fest's top prize". Toronto Star, 15 September 2013.
  7. Guiducci, Mark (22 November 2013). "10 Minutes with Philomena's Sophie Kennedy Clark". Vogue (magazine). Retrieved 12 August 2014.
  8. Grunert, Andrea. "Andrea Grunert interviews Irish actor Sean Mahon, mid filming "Philomena" with Stephen Frears.". Vulgo. Retrieved 12 August 2014.
  9. "Philomena (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)". Retrieved 8 February 2014.
  10. "Philomena (2013)". Flixster Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2 April 2014.
  11. "Philomena". CBS Interactive Metacritic. Retrieved 5 December 2013.
  12. Holden, Stephen (21 November 2013). "Nasty Nuns Can't Shake a Faith". New York Times. Retrieved 12 August 2015.
  13. Torrance, Kelly (28 November 2013). "Philomena". Washington Times. Retrieved 10 April 2014.
  14. Chang, Justin (31 August 2013). "Venice Film Review: 'Philomena'". Retrieved 10 April 2014.
  15. 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.
  16. 1 2 Smith, Kyle (21 November 2013). "'Philomena' another hateful and boring attack on Catholics". New York Post. Retrieved 13 December 2013.
  17. Fleming Jr., Mike. "The Real 'Philomena' Answers New York Post Critic Who Condemns Her Film As An Attack On Catholics And Republicans". Retrieved 12 August 2015.
  18. Smith, Kyle (7 December 2013). "Harvey Weinstein's 'Philomena' attack ad". New York Post. Retrieved 11 August 2015.
  19. Smith, Kyle (7 December 2013). "Harvey Weinstein's 'Philomena' attack ad". New York Post. Retrieved 13 December 2013.
  20. The Catholic church sold my child | Life and style. The Guardian. Retrieved on 22 May 2014.
  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. 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. "Italy's David di Donatello Awards Honor 'The Great Beauty,' 'The Human Capital'". Retrieved 7 July 2016.
  29. Sneed, Tierna. "'Philomena' Draws Catholic Backlash". Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  30. Cable, Simon (7 November 2013). "Judi Dench movie Philomena 'twisted the truth' says nuns | Mail Online".
  31. Sixsmith, Martin (8 November 2013) Philomena and Me: Martin Sixsmith, on a mother's search for the child she was forced to give up MumsnetGuestBlogs,

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