Words: Adam Hofmeister
Based on a true story, Steve Coogan and Judi Dench give brilliant performances in a Frears film that firmly maintains the balance between funny and tragic.
After an embarrassing political email goes public, Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) finds himself out of his Labour government advisor job and unemployed. At the same time, Philomena Lee (Dench) confides to her daughter for the first time that she has a son, taken from her fifty years before when she lived in a convent. After a chance meeting with her daughter, Martin half-heartedly agrees to help Philomena track down her son.
There is true joy in watching these two very different people play off each other, their worldviews so drastically different. Dench’s Philomena is a product of her time, apologetic for the Catholic establishment that wronged her, convinced that the whole affair is a kind of penance for her “sin.” Her naïve belief that everyone is doing their best to help keeps her going, where it otherwise exhausts Martin.
Yet with this self-loathing, there is also jovial warmth, endless conversing, and a fascination with the lives of everyone she encounters. In many ways, she reminds me of my Irish grandmother, and not just because of Dench’s excellent accent. With bias, this makes Philomena’s comments on American cinema and the implications of the Celtic harp very real for me, and hence funnier.
Coogan’s Sixsmith, on the other hand, is a snobbish liberal, vocal in his atheism to Philomena and closed off to those he encounters. Whilst it first appears he’s on a glory mission, it becomes apparent he is a far better Christian than those he encounters in Philomena’s search for the truth, and perhaps a more principled journalist than his editor Sally (Michelle Fairley). Far from detached, he seems angrier about Philomena’s situation than she herself does. His care for Philomena doesn’t stop him from being a condescending twerp though, giving Coogan some of the best lines in the film.
It is this oddball pairing of personalities that makes Philomena such a pleasure to watch, yet it also brings attention to the manipulation and abuse of woman by religious organisations, whether now or then (when the credits rolled, I heard more than one person grumbling about convents).
Young Philomena (played in flashbacks by newcomer Sophie Clark Kennedy) gives us a cold and brutal look inside a world where women are labelled harlots and forced to work themselves out of “shame.” Their children are kept from them but for one hour a day. These brief glimpses into the past could have fallen into melodrama, but Stephen Frears keeps the memories short and concise, reeling us back to the present with a sense of outrage and heartbreak that wouldn’t have worked had they been dragged out longer in a more Spielbergian way.
As the film moves across countries, we are given snapshots that show the life of Philomena’s son outside of the convent and with his new family. Though brief, they indelibly mark you as a world that she herself will never be able to share with him. Philomena may be able to forgive in her uniquely warm way, but I feel the audience will struggle to do the same.