“Philomena” Casting Review


Based off of true events, Philomena is the heart-wrenching tale of a mother’s journey to find out what happened to her first-born child, having been forced to give him up for adoption when she was a teenager by the stern nuns that were housing her. The movie’s cast is extremely simple, and is mainly composed of its two principal leads, British actors Steve Coogan and Dame Judi Dench. Although both are readily the film’s central characters, the story is still populated with supporting characters and players–it’s not like this film is Gravity, and there are literally only two speaking characters in the entire piece. Where Philomena truly shines is the fact that it takes a significant story that spans the globe, yet keeps the focus on just one woman’s emotional journey.

Acting veteran Judi Dench plays the titular character “Philomena”, an elderly Irish woman who, one day, confesses to her daughter, “Jane”, that she gave birth to a boy when she was only a teenager, and was then forced to give him up for adoption. On top of that revelation, Philomena also wants to know exactly what befell her son and what kind of life he was able to live. Jane is understandably shocked by this, but is determined to help her mother, and enlists the aid of Martin Sixsmith, a political journalist looking for his next break. Although he initially scoffs at the idea of writing a “human interest” piece, after hearing Philomena’s moving tale, Sixsmith can’t help but try to do everything in his power to help reconnect her with her long lost child.

As the titular character, Dench delivers a powerful yet soft performance. Although Philomena very much deserved to be angry at those who wronged her, this woman is always calm, collected, warm, and understanding. Dench’s performance is certainly emotional and heart-wrenching, but the name of the game here is control. Underneath Philomena’s quirky, almost naïve personality, lies a grieving mother that is continually haunted by what happened to her. Despite the inherent drama within the story, Dench also manages to add a much-needed sense of levity and humor to this piece by infusing a sense of wonder and openness to her performance. This is particularly evident when Philomena and Sixsmith travel to America and she becomes giddy with every sight, sound, and experience.

The complexity to Dench’s Philomena is augmented by Coogan’s turn as Sixsmith. His character is very much the opposite of Philomena, and he is pushy, aggressive, and emotionally volatile. His character is the angry voice that represents Philomena, and he says the things that she is too reserved and polite to say. Coogan’s performance here is a lot darker than his usual smarmy, comedic performances, which is a great change of pace and shows that he can readily tackle more gravitas-laden pieces. Sixsmith’s personality juxtaposes Philomena’s perfectly, and the two make a fun, albeit unconventional dynamic duo. Sixsmith’s matter-of-factness blends with Philomena’s warm and gentle nature, and the resulting mix is an emotional reaction that elicits both heart-wrenching sadness and justified fury.

Philomena and Sixsmith are very much the focus of this entire piece and even though they interact with other characters in the story, these roles are primarily used as narrative checkpoints — giving bits of information to help usher the duo to their next destination. This isn’t to say that the supporting actors aren’t worthwhile, and the notable players that stand out are Sophie Kennedy Clark, Charlie Murphy, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley, and Peter Hermann. Clark plays “Young Philomena”, and has the heartbreaking task of portraying Philomena’s early life in the convent and the pivotal moment when her child Michael is taken away from her by the nuns. Similarly, Martin then plays Young Philomena’s friend at the convent, who suffers a similar fate when her child is also taken away from her.

Back in the present, Michelle Fairley plays “Sally Mitchell”, an editor who convinces Coogan’s Sixsmith to write the human-interest story on Philomena. It’s interesting and almost amusing to see Fairley play a contemporary character, since most people probably know her from her iconic turn as “Catelyn Stark” in HBO’s monster hit Game of Thrones. Finally, Peter Hermann plays the boyfriend/partner of Michael, Philomena’s son. Hermann’s character has to walk across a lot of delicate lines here–he is still grieving the untimely lost of his lover while dealing with the fact that he’s meeting his de facto mother-in-law in Philomena for the first time. Needless to say, that’s a lot of emotions to process, and Hermann does a commendable job showing the subtle vulnerability and wariness that someone in his position would show.

Compared to some of the other award-winning films from this past season, Philomena is quiet and subdued, yet no less emotionally impactful than its peers. The film and its actors serve as an excellent example that you don’t always have to have the biggest gun in order to make the loudest impact. Judy Dench is a consistent reminder that less is often more, and her critically-acclaimed turn in this film is not only well-deserved, but inspiring to actors and storytellers everywhere.

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