Movie review: Philomena directed by Stephen Frears


Ireland in the 1950s. Philomena Lee is a pregnant, unmarried teenage girl – it doesn’t bode well in a virulently Catholic country. Her family will most likely disown her, she won’t find a job and she’ll have to raise her child alone. What can she do? Abortion is obviously out of question, for more than one reason. Her only chance is to find a Catholic convent where nuns will give her bed and board, helping her through her pregnancy; in return she’ll have to work for them for four years and sign away her rights to the child forever. Seems a though deal but helpless Philomena knows she simply has no choice. She is sent to a convent in Roscrea, County Tipperary. After giving birth to a son she calls Antony, she serves her ‘time’ in a virtual slave labor camp, working along other single mothers in the laundry. It is part punishment and part compensation to the nuns. Still she can see her little son one hour a day and, like other young mothers, she lives for that moment. Soon enough a rich couple arrives to the convent and they choose two children – a girl and Anthony. The 3-year-old boy is sold for 1,000 pounds. Devastated Philomena knows that she is forbidden to search for her son but she never loses hope she’ll meet him again.

50 years later. An elderly Philomena, is still trying to discover what became of the toddler she was forced to give up. Her adult daughter contacts her with Martin Sixsmith, a disgraced British journalist, formerly working for the BBC but ousted as a spin-doctor in Tony Blair’s government. Although Martin is an atheist and a cynic Philomena agrees to cooperate – Martin is obviously better skilled at looking for information and his editor is footing the bill for the search in return for a good story. They go together to Roscrea only to face a wall of smiling silence – the nuns are hospitable enough but they claim their records were lost during a fire. The locals tell Martin the nuns burned them themselves. Still, with the help of an old photo of Anthony, the one Philomena was given secretly by one of the more sympathetic nuns, they manage to find out that the child was taken to the USA so they decide to go there and look for him.

What happened to Anthony? Did his adoption give him a better chance of success? Did he make the most of it? Will his biological mother reunite with him or will it be too late?

My impressions:

I have learned a thing or two about the policy concerning single mothers in post-war Ireland, mainly from other books and movies, so I roughly knew what to expect. Still I admit Philomena surprised me pleasantly more than one time. The movie perhaps wasn’t perfect but it was very good.

I felt that a major theme here was forgiveness. Philomena, the main lead played wonderfully by Judi Dench, was a woman who’s been wronged by a powerful organization, treated worse than a slave and still she didn’t blame the sisters, quite the opposite; she behaved as if they, like her, were never given a choice. Still I liked the most the fact that the movie had many facets escaping neatly rigid categorization. It was partially a comedic road movie, partially a detective story, an anticlerical screed, and an inquiry into faith and the limitations of reason, all rolled together. Fairly sophisticated about spiritual matters, it touched really sensitive subject, taking pains to distinguish faith from institutionalized piety you’ve inherited from your parents. It also had a surprising political subtext in its comparison of the church’s oppression and punishment of unmarried pregnant women with homophobia and the United States government’s reluctance to deal with that issue.

Two main protagonist were contrasted nicely as well. Steve Coogan, the producer and co-writer of Philomena, plays Martin Sixsmith, a failed jobless journo who, after being burned by the shabby and inglorious world of political spin, doesn’t know what to do with his life anymore. He takes up running but you can’t run the whole day. When an interesting story falls into his lap he is intrigued almost despite himself.

Sixmith initially derides the request of Philomena’s daughter as a “human interest” bit: nothing more ambitious than mid-market newspaper slush, a task beneath him. Yet, with nothing better at hand, he takes it on and, together with elderly Philomena, they make the oddest of couples. Martin used to be a high flyer in the amoral worlds of politics and the media. He still is firmly ‘upper class’, with a posh wife and a house in Knightsbridge, but his life seems empty. Philomena is the working-class woman who, miraculously, haven’t lost her faith and  holds on to one clear moral fact: she doesn’t want revenge, only the truth.

The pair of movie protagonists and a real-life Philomena with Mr. Sixsmith

Philomena, for all her surface prudishness, proves to be also quite modern: she admits to having happy, guilt-free memories of the liaison that got her in trouble. She literally doesn’t regret one moment of it. Even more surprisingly, she professes a matter-of-fact acceptance of homosexuality, claiming that she saw that possibility in the behaviour of her three-year-old son, something that a bit surprised me to tell you the truth. Oh, and let’s not forget she loved reading cheesy romance books – I suppose that can explain a lot ;p.

The movie is also very funny in that subtle way; the humour is used to entertain you but also to prepare you for the biggest emotional twists. That’s why you can’t find here one boring moment – for example just as you are writing off a scene at a hotel breakfast buffet as a bit of light relief it twists all of a sudden into one of the film’s most affecting scenes.

There was one area which the director never tried to explore and which, in my humble opinion would make the movie even better: SPOILER highlight to read Anthony, a declared homosexual (to an extend it was actually possible in the Reagan era) died of AIDS but his steady partner, Peter, survived, apparently unharmed. It made me wonder who cheated on whom and, judging by the reluctance of Peter to answer any questions, I counted on a properly twisted answer but I was given none. Pity.

Final verdict:

A sad haunting tale of hurt, loss and forgiveness. Also a tale about two unlikely but equally intelligent allies searching for the truth. There were no simple answers and no clean heroes. That’s why I liked it.

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6 Responses to Movie review: Philomena directed by Stephen Frears

  1. blodeuedd says:

    I would have been sad, they should have met :/

  2. heidenkind says:

    This sounds good! I honestly had no idea what it was about before now.

  3. rameau says:

    I saw the trailer and was mildly curious before, but now I definitely want to see it. Eventually.

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