Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Michelle Fairley, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon
Philomena Lee’s true story is the stuff of nightmares. Her baby stolen away by nuns and sold to the highest bidder, the path to that forfeited son swept clean, locked inside the tight-lipped vault of one particularly malevolent Catholic nun, Philomena has been through hell on Earth. And yet, she won’t condemn those who have brought so much suffering upon her. Instead, she passes absolution down like Jesus himself. She may not ever forget but she is willing to forgive and from her untainted spirit, we can all learn a valuable lesson.
In Philomena, Martin Sixsmith’s not quite disgraced but he’s been let go from his cushy position over at the Labour party. Unsure where to start on his long-gestated novel of Russian history, he’s offered a chance to turn Irish elder Philomena’s life story into a personal piece by an old friend editor, Sally (Michelle Fairley). Intent on maintaining his journalistic pride, he refuses to touch her story on the grounds that it’s a human interest story and “human interest stories are read by weak-minded, ignorant people and written by weak-minded, ignorant people.” But when Martin meets Philomena, he is equally captivated by the unspeakable calamity that she’s just now opening up about for the first time in sixty years.
Judi Dench drops the crusty but caring shtick she’s perfected over the course of her career to embody this foundation of life of a woman. Bubbling over with enthusiasm and accidental wit, Philomena is like Pinocchio – a wooden figurine magically brought to life who, now finally living, can’t stop ogling at the wonders of the world. As she hops around the globe with Martin trying to unearth the mystery of her lost son, she lives out the childhood she never had, a childhood she spent slaving away at a nunnery. Even though Philomena’s story is a tragedy, she prefers to think of it as a work in progress, a perspective guided by her unflinching glass-is-half-full optimism. Though initially mocking Philomena’s rose-colored perception of the world, Martin begins down his own road of internal modulation that may turn around his raincloud ways.
A zesty screenplay from star Steve Coogan adapts the real Sixsmith’s “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” balancing doses of meaningful character drama amongst potent religious commentary and stark moments of comedy. His acid wit underscored with her tender naivety, they are the quintessential odd couple.
But as the film pokes along, it only really finds its footing when Philomena emerges as a comic presence. Her unexpected sexual asides catch the audience off guard and proves that there may be more behind her mousy-mopped facade than we expected at first glance. And once this Philomena as comic is out of the box, anything less from her feels flat – a sour disappointment.
Moving from one act to the next, the film begins to feel fundamentally disjointed. The first act is moody and glum, a mirror of the cloud-raked weather of their London setting. The second Washington D.C.-set act reveals newfound buoyancy after discovering the humor of the piece. But comedy is interrupted by tragedy and by the time the third act rolls around and we wind up in Ireland, the inflammatory and revelatory conundrum we’re put in finds both audience and characters doing a bit of a ballet on eggshells.
We want to stand in Martin’s corner, lambasting the outrage of it all but we can’t help but marvel at Philomena’s incredible gifts of serenity. She’s the one who has been wronged and yet she is the only one capable of Biblical forgiveness. “I don’t want to be like you,” Philomena says, “I don’t want to spend my life hating people.” Hers is a power message to be sure but I’d be damned if it all the injustice doesn’t make you want to jump up and strangle someone.
Controversy stirred up by the MPAA and the Weinstein Company over the film’s rating – it was originally R but contested and changed to PG-13 – may have been a play to put this film more in the public eye but it’s clearly not a film that many youngsters will find much interest in. It’s thoughtful, sweet, and even challenging at times but it’s far from exciting and even tetters on the edge on boring at times.
Stephen Frears‘ effort is good at twisting our emotions but it’s not always clear which way he wants to twist them. Whether or not he’s intended to leave his audience feeling muddled and unsure, that is what he achieves. There’s tightly packed power packed in Philomena but I’m not entirely convinced that Frear knows where to aim his punches.