A film that examines the draconian oppression of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the Magdalene laundries may seem like a gruelling experience at the movies. This film however is warm, very funny, heartbreaking and deeply moving. It is a simple story with simple characters but is executed with such heartfelt confidence and precision that there will be tears and laughter which is no way contrived.”
Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is an adviser to the Blair government who is sacked after a political scandal. Feeling dejected and at a loss for his next career move, a newspaper editor offers Sixsmith a chance to write a human interest story. By chance, Sixmith meets the daughter of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) – a retired nurse with a painful secret. After falling pregnant out of wedlock and as a teenager, she is placed in a nun’s convent to work in a Magdalene style laundry. Her baby is born but raised by the nuns. When young Anthony is four he is adopted by a visiting American couple. The true crime is that the church received £1000 for the child. Philomena is desperate to find out what happened to her son who she hasn’t seen in over 40 years. Sixsmith sees the story as a chance to make a quick buck. He’s arrogant, cynical and indifferent to this “little old Irish lady” and her simple outlook on life. The two travel to America in search of Anthony but are both unprepared for the impact the discoveries that await them.
The performances – which are essentially a two-hander between Dench and Coogan – are pitch perfect. Coogan has made a career of aloofness and arrogance but his journey to understanding and ultimately compassion is uncontrived and honest. The audience is constantly teetering on the fence of whether Sixsmith will exploit this human story of heartbreak for a quick buck or whether he will do right by this “little Irish lady”. Dench is the real star of the film, however. She is so natural and effortless in her portrayal of an Irish woman with a heart wrenched past; audiences forget we are in the presence of a great performance. She is Philomena in the way only great actors inhabit a role (like the way Daniel Day Lewis was Lincoln) and she will surely be nominated at this year’s Academy Awards. The dynamic of the relationship between the two characters is a joy to behold. Philomena is the quintessential optimist which is a great foil to Sixsmith’s cynicism and patronising.
The film explores the notion of Catholicism. Sixsmith and Philomena are worlds and decades apart. Sixsmith is highly educated and highly secular. Philomena is a retired nurse with a simpler outlook on life. In a very telling scene Philomena asks if Martin believes in God to which he replies: “I think that is a very complicated question that deserves more than a simple answer, do you?” Philomena responds with a simple answer: “yes”. Her faith and compassion is at the centre of the film. Sixsmith’s inclination is to expose the Church and excoriate the participants in a harsh injustice. Philomena however is on a mission to discover any information about her son she can while remaining forgiving of her oppressors.
The film is also critical of the ‘Daily Mail culture’ in the media. Sixsmith’s editor (played by Game of Thrones star Michelle Fairley) is the epitome of lurid tabloid journalism. The environment is cold and exploitative – they either want a happy ending or a devastating tragedy. Philomena insists she does not like the word “evil”. These are not black and white situations but people making decisions that they feel are right.
Stephen Frears is to be commended for his deft and assured direction. There is obvious imagery (the apple that falls from the young Philomena’s hand when she succumbs to her passions) and moments that may fall too close to soap opera, but Frears keeps the balance in check where hacks may have turned this into a manipulative sob fest. He handles the balance between brevity and sadness expertly and the latter moments never feel contrived or sentimental. Coogan too is to be commended for his screenplay (co-written with Jeff Pope which won at the Venice film festival).
All in all, Philomena is a fantastically rewarding cinema experience. The plot is a fascinating mystery with revealing and intimate portrayals of very real people. Frears, Coogan and Pope have delivered a film that never descends into a ‘message movie’ or melodramatic soapbox. The deftly balanced one-two punch of humour and heartbreaking sadness will have you chuckling and wiping away tears at the same time.