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Philomena: My Favorite Movie of the Year

A holiday visit from an earthborn angel


I adore, cherish and love, love, love Philomena. This year, which has turned out to have some pretty swell offerings after all, has seen efforts that are technically brilliant (Gravity) and emotionally stirring (12 Years a Slave), but Philomena is, by far, my favorite movie of 2013. Since its September premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I've been gushing nonstop about Philomena, and I'm happy to report that she has finally arrived in Boise just in time for the holidays.

Philomena (directed by Stephen Frears) is based on 2009's The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a book about a startling investigation by the BBC's Martin Sixsmith. And it was Steve Coogan, who stars as Sixsmith, who first saw this story of redemption, forgiveness and the purest of grace as a film. Coogan co-wrote the screenplay making him a 2014 Oscar double-threat.

Philomena Lee, a devout Irish Catholic, saw her innocence and her infant son, who was born out of wedlock, stolen from her when Magdalene nuns sold her baby to an American couple. The nuns masqueraded their Irish asylums as "homes for fallen women," and Philomena suffered a lifetime of private shame brought about by the church's moral rectitude. Then, on what would have been her son's 50th birthday, Lee--portrayed by a note-perfect Judi Dench--met Sixsmith. They are the oddest of odd couples: He questions religion, she defends it; he demands retribution, she offers nothing but forgiveness. But they both want the same thing: to find Lee's son.

"I wanted to dignify people who have faith," Coogan told Boise Weekly at the TIFF premiere. "I'm not religious by any means, but there are people I love who are religious. They're good, gracious, decent, honest people and Philomena dignifies those people of simple faith."

The acerbic, witty Coogan never pushes Philomena toward comedic excess, yet he perfectly salt-and-peppers the film with humor.

"She just told four people that they were one-in-a-million. What are the odds of that?" Coogan's Sixsmith asks dryly. Priceless.

The journey to find her long-lost son takes Lee and Sixsmith to the United States, and the film delivers a surprise ending you'll never see coming. And without ever being heavy-handed, the film looks at the roles of the Irish government and Catholic Church, which had their own sins to atone for.

"The [Irish] government only officially apologized about a year ago," Coogan told BW. "They regarded these girls as 'fallen women' because they got pregnant. They were quite repressive in that way."

The namesake of the film, now 80, is enjoying her golden years in her home of Ireland--here's hoping she's a special guest at the 2014 Oscars.

"The real Philomena carries no sense of her tragedy to this day; that's what so impressive about her," Frears told Boise Weekly.

Ultimately, the question that Philomena asks is: would we be able or willing to forgive a deception that had cursed an entire life?

In 90 dazzling minutes, we're challenged to separate faith from cognition; stoicism from grace. And there, somewhere in the middle, is my favorite movie of 2013: Philomena. I can't wait for you to meet her.

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Director: Stephen Frears

Producer: Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward, Henry Normal, Christine Langan, Cameron McCracken, Fran├žois Ivernel and Carolyn Blackwood

Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Barbara Jefford, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mare Winningham, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Peter Hermann and Ruth McCabe