In the light of all the abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years, one might be forgiven for expecting British director Stephen Frears’ latest film to be riding along on that particular bandwagon. However, such an assertion would discredit this very finely crafted and very well-paced film, which was scripted jointly by the talented Jeff Pope [credits include: ‘Pierrepoint’, 'Essex Boys’ and ‘Appropriate Adult’] and by the film’s co-star Steve Coogan, and was also co-produced by Coogan.
I had the privilege of viewing the film this week myself, prior to its release. Hopefully, there will be no ‘spoilers’ in my review though, since the story has been told in full several times already; in Martin Sixsmith’s excellent book ‘The Catholic Church Sold My Child,' in his and others’ reviews of the film, and in contemporaneous press reports and serialisation. My own fear was that this tragic tale might be altogether too mawkish. In the event, however, the story is told with gentle compassion and is without a doubt the best film I have seen this year.
‘Philomena’ relates the true story of Philomena Lee, a retired Irish nurse who has never forgotten the son whom she bore, out of wedlock, back in the 1950s and who was taken from her at the age of four to be sold into adoption. For half a century, Philomena has tried unsuccessfully to find her son, Anthony. Shortly after what she realises would be Anthony’s 50th birthday, a glimmer of hope presented itself in the unlikely form of sacked Labour spin doctor and journalist, Martin Sixsmith.
Well remembered in the United Kingdom as the ultimately vindicated scapegoat of New Labour’s ‘Bury the news on the back page’ scandal, Sixsmith is shown as depressed about his enforced resignation. He is planning to write a history of Russia that, in his heart of hearts, he realises no one will want to read. Although at first reluctant to become involved in pursuing a mere human interest story, he is soon drawn into Philomena’s tragic history and his contacts enable him to persuade a broadsheet editor to fund his and Philomena’s quest to find her son.
Philomena is played with understated brilliance by Britain’s ‘national treasure,’ Dame Judi Dench. Her awesome performance glides smoothly between wide-eyed naïveté and working-class Irish wisdom. The contrast between Philomena’s smart but sensible chain store dressing and Martin’s more affluent man-about-town image do credit to Consulata Boyle’s costume design and to Naomi Donne’s hair and make-up design [Naomi having worked her magic previously on the Dench complexion in ‘Skyfall’], and adds instant credibility to the characters.
It is Dench’s portrayal of the generous-spirited and good-natured Philomena, together with the absence of Hollywood violins that stops the film from becoming overly sentimental. The cynical, bowed-but-not-quite-beaten journalist is most admirably played by comedy (usually) actor Steve Coogan. There is no sign whatsoever of the overt cringeworthiness of his Alan Partridge in Coogan’s interpretation of the Sixsmith role, and he more than justifies both his selection for this part and his relatively recent transition to the big screen. His performance too is played-down, except in those moments of awful revelation which rightfully demand an appropriate emotional outburst.
He plays Martin Sixsmith as a man who cushions himself from his disappointment with life by the use of ironic, throw-away lines. He has Martin making light of his own atheism, quipping: ‘I don’t believe in God ... and I think he can tell.’ Behind the light humour, however, he allows Martin’s personal pain to shine through. Philomena, who has borne her own pain for much longer and with quiet dignity, assures Martin she has not passed a day in her life when she did not think of her little boy.
Philomena and Martin, who present as an oddly matched couple, visit the Abbey – the convent in Roscrea, County Tipperary, where Philomena was incarcerated as an unpaid laundry worker, when her parents abandoned her as a pregnant teenager. Without the necessary £100 [£2,000 or US$3,210 in today’s values] to buy herself out of the convent, Philomena had to remain there for four years. Allowed to see her son for just one hour a day, the teenaged Philomena was devastated the day he was taken away – without her consent – for adoption. Now, as with all her previous visits to the Abbey, the nuns deny her any help in tracing Anthony.
Their reticence makes Martin all the more determined to pursue the truth. Although the Irish adoption authorities refuse to disclose who adopted little Anthony, the U.S. authorities are more forthcoming, though they can only grant disclosure to Philomena in person. It is with some trepidation, therefore, that she sets off for America with Martin. During the trip, Philomena’s touching lack of sophistication manifests itself in her choice of reading material and in her wonderment at the freebies and fare offered by airline and hotel. It is the little, light touches that characterise the relationship between the unsophisticated but devoutly Catholic working class Irishwoman and the urbane, Oxford-educated English journalist. She offers him a slice of buttered barmbrack. He likes it, declaring it to be ‘rather like pan dolce.' ‘No,’ she looks at him pityingly, ‘it’s fruit bread.'
Far from being bitter or vengeful, she is charming, disarming and forgiving and, even when the full extent of the nuns’ deception and wickedness is revealed, she still clings to her belief in God. It is lapsed Catholic turned atheist, Sixsmith, whose anger erupts – ‘F---ing Catholics!’ – in the face of the nuns’ unconscionable cruelty. Philomena’s own conscience is troubled, however, in that she cannot decide which of her sins is the worse – having had a child out of wedlock or having maintained a lie by keeping secret his existence for so long. Her anger and reproach is turned inwards upon herself. Conversely, it is Sixsmith, still raw from his own recent betrayal, who is most outraged on her behalf. In this way, he represents us, the audience. He expresses the anger and indignation which we feel for her.
It is crushingly painful that this story does not have a happy ending. Then again, perhaps it does. Philomena and Martin are, each in their own way, wounded souls. In this journey to find Philomena’s stolen infant, they both also find a little healing. This is no mere tragic tale of cruelty and child abduction. It is the story of a wronged woman’s exceptional capacity for forgiveness and how her compassion humbles a man of apparently greater intellectual capability. This is a story of the enduring nature of the human spirit.
This wonderful film almost never happened, however. This was a story which came close to never being told. It was a story that, for 50 years, Philomena did not wish to tell, and it was one that, initially, political journalist Sixsmith did not wish to write. It is a film that U.S. distributor Harvey Weinstein had to battle to make available to a wider American audience than the Motion Picture Association of America would like. Rated initially by MPAA as suitable for the over 17s only (as was also, oddly enough, ‘The King’s Speech’), it is, however, rated in the UK as 12A (suitable for viewers as young as 12 if accompanied by an adult).
Having impressed audiences at this year’s Toronto Film Festival and having won the Best Screenplay Award at last month’s Vienna Film Festival, ‘Philomena’ is tipped to scoop the board in the next round of Oscars. The film will be released in the UK and Ireland on 1st November. Cinema-goers in the USA will have to wait a little longer, until November 22 in a limited release, and November 27 wide, to see this wholly amazing film.