Philomena is a film par excellence. With brilliant acting by Dame Judi Dench and in equal measure her male counterpart Steve Coogan (who is also a producer and writer on the project), this is an intelligently hilarious, politically subtle and very poignant story. Based on real life events of trans-Atlantic adoptions of children of unwed women, who lived in various convents across the British isles (this one is focused on one in Ireland), a strong narrative focus and essentially a ‘human interest story’.
The story begins with Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan) who has recently exited from a job with the Labour Government in England and is perhaps wandering aimlessly, not knowing what to do. His default answer to anyone and everyone who asks him what he is up to these days, is that he is working on a book on Russian history. This, by his own confession, would be something no one would be interested in. This aimless place that he finds himself in is about to change. He bumps into the daughter of an old retired nurse, who has just told her daughter that she had a child when she was really young; a son she was forced to give up by the nuns who were sheltering her post her sinful act of having had sex pre-matrimony.
Philomena (played by none other than Judi Dench) gave birth to her son at a convent in Roscrea, where she had been abandoned by her father for having gotten pregnant un-wed. While the film follows, in flashbacks, the time Philomena spent at the convent, the birth of the child and the moment when her son is taken away from her, without her consent and placed into an adoptive home, the film is about questioning the various wrongs that had been done to women in the name of ‘morality’ propagated by the church. The most brilliant aspect of the film is the two characters Sixsmith and Philomena, who stand at opposite spectrums of religious, social and life values. Philomena, though gravely wronged by the church, in the form of the nuns in the convent, continues to defend her faith, her god, ‘religiously’. While Martin is this modern, progressive, socio-political thinker, journalist, who is cynical, pretty bitter and angry since his recent unceremonious departure from his employment and constantly is baffled by Philomena’s sense of forgiveness to all who wronged her.
Stephen Frears (the filmmaker who has mastered the art of British drama) is subtle, yet fearless as he pits these two characters against each other, without any dramatic outbursts, raised voices or even unmanageable arguments. Both Philomena and Martin understand the other, or at least try to, become very good friends and find the other such a fascinating different reality from what they are used to and know.
Something has to be said about Judi Dench. I read somewhere that its actors like Judi Dench who make us want to watch actors and its so true. She is brilliant times five. There is not one slip from her and she delivers a powerhouse performance as the wronged mother who has spent the last five decades wondering what happened to her son, who was forcibly taken from her. And she later finds out that he died a few years ago and that she would never see him again.
Philomena’s worldview though defined by her religious leanings (for the most part at least) is never once troubled by the fact that her son was gay and died of AIDS. She acknowledges having always had an inkling that he was gay and finds happiness in the fact that he found someone to love. Her son Anthony, post adoption called Michael, went on to work for two US Presidents and was an extremely successful person. Being part of the Republican Party ensured that he stayed closeted all his life, but did well for himself and to sum it up in Philomena’s words, ‘I don’t think I could have ever given him the life that he ended up having.’
The most moving moment in the film comes when Martin has brought Philomena to the United States in search of her son. He stumbles upon pictures and news articles and traces Anthony to his adoptive home and eventual career in politics. Martin had a few moments ago gently reprimanded Philomena’s generosity with compliments to the waiting staff at the hotel and how she was not being helpful with constant interruptions. She has discovered that the buffet breakfast is complimentary and is completely taken by whole new experience that has unfolded before her. Martin stares at the webpage with Michael’s picture in front of him. Philomena turns and sees the image and she turns to Martin and realizes that her long lost son is dead. She is so heartbroken that my heart bled with her in that moment. The enormity of that news hits Philomena’s heart so penetratingly that she feels having lost the only hope she carried for over five decades. It’s moments like these that we humans, no matter who and where we are, realize that we are so completely helpless before the enormity of life.
I think the movie accomplishes so much at so many levels. There is little that can be faulted about the honest representation of the characters, the solid narrative which speaks to unspeakable things that have been perpetrated in the name of morality and religion, yet all it does is make you think and really question, without being antagonistic about it, for why we believe something or in something more than ourselves as people.
Martin’s character does not believe in god and he asks Philomena when she is on her way to confession one time, that she must ask god why millions die in a natural disaster and what his sense of justice is in such an event. And that its perhaps the church that needs to confess.
I didn’t see the film as a reprimand of the church, as some people have suggested, but merely discussing a person’s life story and how unquestioned dogma leaves imprints beyond what we can ever imagine. But if a simple story of a woman who wants to know what happened to her baby, who was forcibly taken from her, ends up being a reprimand for a wrong doing, then so be it.
image source: radiotimes.com