Philomena (2013)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on December 9, 2013 @

Philomena is cinematic titanium.

Like the character Phenomena's hip replacement, the movie is serviceable. As she says titanium is "anti-rust," which means the past won't mar the present.

Since Philomena is ultimately a feel-good movie, the rust of the past must be transcended.

Philomena is inspired by true events." Inspired?

It's one of those films that you leave wondering how much is "true," and what has been avoided. What has been changed to make it easier for the audience?

Of course, Judi Dench is winning as the title character, but the character is a woman for all seasons. Philomena lurches from tortured to silly, from stern to babbling. She's on a teeter-totter of shifting character.

Although her life has been shaped - and devastated - by religion and the Catholic Church, Philomena is oddly casual about her son's homosexuality. She sees it mostly as though it were a pair of jeans. Her life has been dominated by the sense of "sin" inflicted on her by the Church, but she seems to be another person when she relates to her son's life. She seems oblivious to the mighty Church's dictates.

One imagines that the actual Philomena might have considered it "punishment" for her "sin." It's hard to imagine her being so blasé, but the movie is made for a contemporary audience, so let's ignore any hangups she might have. They're not commercial.

Philomena is the story of a young woman who was impregnated and then sent to the Roscrea convent in county Tipperary, Ireland, where she gave birth to her son Anthony in July 1952. The women had to slave in the laundry separated from their children to try to pay off their oppressive financial debts to the nuns. In his nonfiction book, Martin Sixsmith says Philomena was one of thousands of young unwed mothers whose children were taken from them and sold by nuns to people - many from America - for a large donation.

The movie shows the stricken Philomena watch as a car drives off with her son looking forlornly out the back window. She searches for him all her adult life. On his 50th birthday, she confesses to her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) about her son. At a party the daughter speaks to writer Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former BBC reporter who has recently been fired from government service.

Although at first he is reluctant to get involved in a human interest story, eventually he does meet Philomena and together they go on a journey to try to find the lost son. Their search takes them to America, where they find out Anthony was a highly-placed official in the Republican party. But the search for him and his identity is not over that easily. Philomena needs closure.

The relationship between Philomena and Martin is between a woman of faith and a man of reason. There's a half-hearted attempt in the film to show that each of them has an influence on the other. But it comes down to just a vacated confessional and a little statue of Jesus.

Reason does sort of win at the end, as she decides to let him publish her story.

Judi Dench gives credibility to a character that flutters all over the place, and Steve Coogan is solid as her guide.

The direction by Stephen Frears is competent.

The script by Jeff Pope and Coogan is perhaps more holey than holy. There are some surprises in the screenplay such as when Philomena admits to Martin that she "loved" the sex that got her pregnant. But the writers don't take many chances. The actual son is portrayed as a little prince, when in actuality he was dissolute and selfish. But then he might not be sympathetic.

Philomena softens anger with balm, when less adornment seems more appropriate.

But the actual Martin Sixsmith was a "spin doctor" for the government.

Philomena spins a tale.

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