Film review: Philomena
In a heart-twisting, mostly wordless sequence near the beginning of Stephen Frear’s film, he shows us a mother’s screaming dashes when her child is being taken from her.
Philomena races to a window and sees her young son who is being kept in a different room hoisted from her sight. She tears her crazy feet to the back gate with time only to glimpse at Anthony’s little face peeking from behind a departing car.
It was the 1950s. Philomena was a teenager her father had abandoned at a Catholic convent in Roscrea, Ireland, when he found her with child. Here, she shared quarters with girls of a similar plight.
In servitude to Sisters of the church, the young mothers laboured away in the institutional laundry, if not as penance then, as compensation for food and shelter. They were allowed one hour a day with their children. Until the toddlers were sold to any Catholic who could put up 1,000 pounds for their adoption.
Frears plays out these scenes through the recollecting eyes of Philomena who, 50 years later in 2003, lives a religious, if viscerally disquiet, life with her adult daughter.
They meet Martin Sixsmith. A former BBC correspondent, he is looking to resurrect his journalistic career following a scandal-riddled political stint in the Blair administration.
After at first dismissing their narrative as a human-interest story, a euphemism for pieces meant for “the weak-minded, vulnerable, and ignorant”, the arrogant journalist takes to reporting it nonetheless.
And now, based on his non-fiction, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, this comedy-drama brings us on a very moving journey with our eponymous heroine as she sets out to find her lost son.
Judi Dench plays the older Philomena for whom she weaves decades of pent-up anguish and hope and uncertainty into her lines and silvery hair. As Philomena travels to America with Martin on their quest, we see an ingenuous lady with a strong conviction and an inspiring love for humanity.
But while Dench endears us to the Irish mother’s simple ways, it is her quiet expression speaking out loud Philomena’s strength of character and capacity to forgive that is astonishing. When you think the veteran actor cannot become better than she already has, she does.
Steve Coogan’s Martin, on the contrary, is Philomena’s temperamental antithesis: an atheist, he is supercilious and cynical, and is arguably the embodiment of our present-day, world-weary, secular culture.
Yet, Coogan wears Martin’s contempt lightly; he is conceited but not callous. In a performance as profound as Dench’s, Coogan lets his compassion flow from Martin’s eyes which in one scene shift touchingly between Philomena and the video of her homosexual son that they are watching with Anthony’s former partner.
With potent nuances, the excellent screenplay by Coogan himself and Jeff Pope distinguishes between faith and church piety. It contrasts the cruelty, wringing the Catholic face that disdains human life, with Philomena’s deep relationship with God.
The struggles between reason and religion are deftly drawn as well. Exquisite questions like “Why would God bestow on us a sexual desire that He then wants us to resist?” chase the Celtic wind that has no answers.
Still, this British production is not simply an indictment of creed. There are clear parallels between the church’s oppression of unmarried mothers and America’s homophobic tendencies in the 1990s and its then-failure to address the pressing issue of Aids.
Produced shortly after News Corporation’s ignominy, the plot has also sketched in the British media’s eagerness to exploit emotions purely for corporate expedience. Martin’s editor urges him to encourage Philomena to stay behind in the US even when their hunt is decidedly over. Just so the paper could spin a more colourful yarn. With people who knew her son.
Intricate cinema that this is, with every scene and every dialogue pregnant with meaning, the story ends where it begins: the mother finds her son from where he was taken.
Accompanied by lines like TS Eliot’s “… the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” — never mind the obtrusive commercial interests in which Guinness is an obvious benefactor — Philomena is an inspiration whose heart is broken by ruthlessness then mended by grace.