Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013)
Philomena manages to both attack the hypocrisy of organized religion and affirm the power of faith. It’s a remarkable feat, and a fascinating movie. And it’s based on a true story. Bring your outrage.
50ish Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, star/co-writer/producer), an ex-BBC reporter and recently fired government spin doctor (in the time of Tony Blair), at loose ends and depressed, meets a waitress at a cocktail party who overhears him declaring his intention to return to journalism. She invites him to meet her mother, who has just informed her that she has a half-brother she never knew about. This mother, the Philomena of the title (Judi Dench), 50 years earlier, in Ireland, had gotten herself pregnant as a teenager, out of wedlock. Taken in by the nuns at the convent of the town of Roscrea, Philomena had signed a contract giving up her rights to her child (a boy, whom she named Anthony), and agreed to work for 4 years in the laundry room. One day, an American family arrived, ostensibly to adopt a little girl, but since Anthony refused to let the girl go without a fuss, the family adopted him, as well. Philomena had not seen her son since. Now, on the 50th anniversary of Anthony’s birth, she wants to find him. With nothing better to do, Sixsmith – an Oxford man more interested in Russian history than anything else – reluctantly agrees to pursue this “human interest” story.
They make an odd couple. He’s an atheist and intellectual who sees in this story all of the reasons for which he hates religion. She, in spite of her early experience, is a devout believer and simple working gal, who still goes to Catholic mass (although the truth they discover in the course of their investigations will shake her faith in the Church, if not God). Together they travel first to Roscrea, where the current nuns politely decline to offer any leads, claiming that all records have been lost in a fire. By this time, Sixsmith has been able to secure a book contract on the strength of a story about potential church misdeeds. Knowing that Anthony had been adopted by Americans, they next head to the United States, with the trip paid for by the publisher. There, thanks to Sixsmith’s contact from his two former careers, they are able to locate Anthony, although this find does not resolve the story; rather, it complicates and deepens it. To say more would be to give away too much.
Superbly written and acted, and with marvelous direction by Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity), Philomena is that rare film that deals in nuance and complexity without the need to pass excessive moral judgment on its characters (you, the viewer, get to decide where you stand). That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a point of view – it clearly does, and it’s all for Philomena – but rather that it allows for multiple perspectives on the events portrayed. It’s also terrific entertainment: you’ll laugh (how can one not, with Coogan’s ever-present dry wit?); you’ll cry (I hope); you’ll feel uplifted by the power of the human spirit. I highly recommend.
There were only two parts of the film that I did not like:
- The sound design is, at times, a little too bare – in an outside field in Ireland and in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, especially, making it sound as if the dialogue were added in post-production, rather than recorded in those actual locations. While I can see the decision being made to do that to create the illusion that Coogan and Dench are in this together, alone against the forces arrayed against them, but it doesn’t quite work.
- I usually like the look of films shot on the ARRI Alexa, but not this time. While what was on screen was often striking and beautiful, the way it was shot – and the way the camera moved – sometimes looked like high-frame-rate television sportscasts.
Everything else is terrific.