Saturday, December 07, 2013
Philomena isn’t the film we’ve been led to believe it is. The marketing suggests a warm and affirming Oscar vehicle for Judi Dench, but in fact there is something both darker and richer on display. The fact-based Philomena is on one level a story of great anger and surprising political bite, but also that rare film where words like “guilt” and “forgiveness” carry real weight. Judi Dench plays Philomena, a retired Irish nurse whom we find thinking of the son she was forced to give up almost 50 years before. Philomena’s son Anthony was the product of a chance encounter, and because of her status as a single mother the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) was forced to raise him under the “care” of nuns while she worked in a laundry and only saw her son for an hour a day. The flashback of Philomena’s girlhood (and Anthony’s adoption by an American couple) is filmed by director Stephen Frears with the haziness of a bad dream that Philomena is still having half a century later. It isn’t until she crosses paths with journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) that Philomena is able to take action and learn what happened to Anthony. It is because of Sixsmith (whose book on the case is the basis for the film) and Coogan (who produced and co-wrote the screenplay) that we know about Philomena, and Coogan as both writer and actor more than does his part to honor her story. When we meet Sixsmith he has just been fired from a government post after a gaffe and he regards taking on Philomena’s “human interest” story with apprehension for the way it might changed how he’ll be perceived. Coogan plays him by shedding his own comic persona, and I liked how Martin’s anger at what he uncovers about Irish society is gradually muted by his appreciation for the way Philomena simply wants to know what happened.
It takes a trip to America before Philomena and Martin learn what has become of Anthony, who was renamed Michael by his adoptive parents. The most surprising and necessary choice made by the makers of Philomena was to not make their main character a woman ahead of her time. Though Philomena (who went on to marry and have another child) is unfazed by most of human behavior thanks to her years a nurse, there is a degree to which she blames herself for losing Anthony that will seem alien to most of the American audience for this film. There are only a few moments of outright comedy here, as when Philomena ponders watching Big Momma’s House or piles on the croutons at a salad bar. Judi Dench’s excellent performance gets at the darkness that Philomena carries with her. A scene where Philomena lectures Martin about how to treat hotel staff comes from a belief that any of us could be punished at any time for the choices we make now. Dench burrows deep into herself to play this part, and it’s a performance that’s a substantial distance removed from the steely Englishness we’ve come to expect from her in year-end movies. While it might have been my choice to make a film that more squarely hit the Irish Catholic Church for the systemic use of single mothers as indentured servants and income generators, I couldn’t help but be moved by Philomena’s truly Christian reaction when she confronts the nun (Barbara Jefford) who prevented her reunion with Michael. There is a running argument about God and religion throughout Philomena, but in the end one faithful woman is able to transcend the institution that changed her life. Philomena forgives the Church, and more importantly forgives herself.