Review: Philomena (2013)

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Directed by – Stephen Frears
Written by – Jeff Pope & Steve Coogan
Based on The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a book by Martin Sixsmith
Starring – Steve Coogan, Judi Dench, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Peter Hermann, Michelle Fairley, Kate Fleetwood & Barbara Jefford

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent weeks about Kyle Smith’s scathing review of Philomena in the New York Post, in which he branded the film “anti-Catholic and anti-Republican”. According to Smith, Philomena is little more than an assault on the sensibilities of traditionalists; it’s the type of film, in Smith’s opinion, that latches onto a real-life story, twists the truth and then uses its medium to attack Catholic values, as well as – quite accurately – accusing the Republican Party of being anti-gay. If I didn’t know better (i.e. if I didn’t know Smith as a man who likes to stoke controversy purely for the sake of stoking controversy…) I’d say he was both taking Philomena too personally and presenting an interpretation of the film that is wilfully misleading.

Now, the reason I mention Smith’s piece is that it’s little more than an indulgent whine that gets the message of the film totally and utterly wrong. Philomena might be based on a real-life event but it isn’t about Catholicism, the GOP, the war on Christmas, Obamacare, Monica Lewinsky’s laundry or whatever other surreptitious message Smith seems to think is hidden within the screenplay (though all the same, it’s nice of him to be quite so blindly self-obsessed…), rather it is a simple tale of forgiveness, understanding and self-discovery, told via the true story of an old woman’s search for her son. That’s it; that’s all it is. Not that that’s a bad thing though. It might be a bit of a cliché to suggest that “fact is stranger than fiction” but in the case of Philomena fact isn’t just stranger than fiction, it’s also much more interesting.

Let’s put that into context; the film tells the tale of an Irish woman – Philomena Lee (Dench; Shakespeare in Love, A Room with a View) – who, in the fifties, gave birth to a son out of wedlock. Raised by Nuns, the boy was sold to an American family when he was just four years old and Philomena was never allowed to see him again. Fifty years later, with the help of jobless ex-journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan; Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, What Maisie Knew) Philomena set off on a quest to the States to locate her son. This film, based on Sixsmith’s written account of his time with Ms Lee, chronicles that journey.

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The beauty of Philomena is that it never gets bogged down in the politics of its story. It chronicles a factual event, sure, and though it takes a few artistic liberties much of what we see in the film is an accurate depiction of what happened. Nevertheless, the film never once plays out in the style of a documentary. It tells a warm but tragic story in a style that is full of humour, forgiveness and universality, and despite its realism it is a film that never comes across as self-important or preachy. The characters are cynical but likable, the plot is bittersweet and thoroughly engaging, and the film’s sense of justice and fair play is wonderfully refreshing. It’s manipulative, sure, and it has a tameness about it that is a bit grating, but the ultimate feeling one gets from the film is one of pure warmth and joy.

You see, though it’s an important part of the tale, the political, religious and social commentary never overpowers the story. It’s always there, fumbling away in the background, but it never becomes more important than the core focus, which is always Philomena’s search for her son. Perhaps this is what Smith finds so reprehensible about the film; it never whitewashes over the harsh realities of what happened, yet it manages to engage a general audience in such a way that they learn the vicious truth about what the Nuns did without ever feeling like their being lectured. The sale of children was abhorrent – and is presented as such – and the man that Philomena’s son grew up to be was totally out of place in Reagan’s Republican Party, yet the film gets these points across with a tale to which we can all relate on some level. Presumably Smith’s problem is that the film doesn’t hector its audience into submission, thus encouraging them to ignore the bitter truths that he wishes to defend so fervently.

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Furthermore, as a piece of simple story-telling Philomena is a real triumph. Through its focus on Philomena’s quest we also learn a lot about Martin Sixsmith and the journey of discovery upon which he too embarked. The relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith plays out rather predictably but thanks to some brilliant camaraderie between Coogan and Dench, their tale is one that the audience feels comfortable investing in. Sixsmith’s cynical wit and Philomena’s Irish innocence combine to tell a generic but enjoyable “odd-couple” story in a humorous and affecting way. Both Coogan and Dench are superb, and it’s particularly interesting to watch how Coogan handles his role as a journalist, considering his vocal disdain for the profession. It is, however, Dench’s beautifully subdued turn as Philomena which steals the show. It’s not the best performance of the year but if Dench did happen to win the Oscar I probably wouldn’t be too miffed…

Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity) delivers a film that beats along somewhat inoffensively but one that isn’t afraid to stand up and be counted when it comes to taking on the institutions that allowed such a horrific abuse of power to occur in the first place. Philomena is generic, it is a bit predictable and it does manipulate its audience a little too much, but it also carries a universal message of hope, justice and the power of forgiveness that it’s difficult to take much issue with. The film combines comedy with a hint of melodrama and tragedy to tell a story that we can never allow to be forgotten, as much as Kyle Smith wants us to. With its excellent performances and its warm and witty screenplay, Philomena is a film that pulls on the heartstrings, bringing a shamefully forgotten issue right back into focus in the process.

Also, one final thing; as much as I deplore the use of artistic licence when it isn’t necessary, the final showdown between Sixsmith and Sister Hildegarde (Jefford; The Ninth Gate) was marvellous. Better still, you can just tell it was all Coogan’s idea. After all, the man does love a rant against injustice every now and then

★★★½

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