Catholic guilt can be one pervasive beast and if ever there was a film to embody this phenomena it’s Philomena. This is the tragic drama/comedy that is inspired by a true story. It crosses three nations, several decades in time and shows the misdemeanours of an institution that should’ve protected its vulnerable charges.
The film is based on the 2009 book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee which was written by BBC Correspondent, Martin Sixsmith. The stars are Judi Dench and a surprising, Steve Coogan (who doubles as co-writer of the script along with Jeff Pope). The latter actor puts in a performance not unlike his recent turn in What Maisie Knew but it is Dench that steals the show as the film’s eponymous character.
Philomena begins in the 1950s when a teenage girl (Sophie Kennedy Clark) has a tryst at a fairground and becomes pregnant. She is shunned by her family and the only option at the time is to go and live with the nuns at Roscrea and work in the Magdalene Laundries. It is there that she would work every day and will only be permitted to see her baby boy, Anthony, for one hour a week. The nuns say that this arrangement is punishment for her sexual dalliance but things worsen when – at the age of three – Anthony is adopted by wealthy Americans for a princely sum and Lee is not allowed to say goodbye.
Lee would eventually remarry and have a daughter but she kept her agony over her lost son private until 2003. This is the year when her son would turn fifty and she resolved to reconcile or at the very least, find him. Lee would have a chance meeting with the journalist, Martin Sixsmith who had recently lost his job as a government adviser and who originally discounted the events as a “human interest” article. He eventually changed his mind and would be integral at finding out the truth behind what happened.
The film is a slow-burning drama that sees Lee and Sixsmith embark on a journey, first to confront the abbey and then to go to America on a road trip of sorts. The pair are an unlikely match – an odd couple – as Sixsmith is a snobbish, Oxford alumnus who looks down on Lee as little more than an old biddy who has been shaped by her penchant for romance novels, Reader’s Digest magazines and the Daily Mail. But the truth is that Lee is a far more complex and layered character than initially meets the eye. As the story progresses through the present and some flashbacks, she does offer up some clever, mother-like wisdom as well as sticking staunchly to her faith and at other moments rambling rather painfully about plots to films and books.
The content of the film is rather divisive as it paints the nuns in an unfavourable light (Sixsmith calls them the “Sisters of Little Mercy” but this is somewhat appropriate, all things considered). It also deals with greater spiritual issues and conflict as well as showing characters grappling with their sexuality. At its worst the movie veers off into sanctimonious and preachy territory while at its best it is poignant and challenging as it tugs at your heartstrings. There are a few threads to the plot as baby Anthony’s fate is revealed but perhaps the biggest pitfall is the fact that the audience discovers what happens to him far too quickly in the proceedings. This makes the subsequent acts rather onerous, predictable and anti-climactic.
At times Philomena also struggles to find a voice because often it is unsure whether it wants to be a strict, misery memoir like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or if it wants to be a light-hearted, comedic romp not dissimilar to The Odd Couple. The over-reliance on the latter aspect actually detracts from the pain in the story because it is too flippant when you consider what actually happened in this extraordinary turn of events.
Ultimately, Philomena has perfect performances where real depth and emotion are explored but it is let down by a script that suffers from a series of flaws. While the tale is compelling enough, you cannot help but feel like this is a case of a missed opportunity or two, as a far superior film could’ve been realised but wasn’t.
Originally published on 24 December 2013 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2013/12/24/film-review-philomena-uk-usa-france-2013/
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