Philomena (United Kingdom/United States, 2013)November 25, 2013
Part mystery investigation, part mismatched buddy film, and part condemnation of inhumane attitudes in 1950s Ireland and 1980s Washington, Philomena falls into the category of "too unbelievable to be fiction." Faithfully based on the true story told in Martin Sixsmith's 2009 book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the movie recounts the journey taken by Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) from Ireland to Washington in the company of sixtysomething Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) to search of the son who was stolen from her nearly five decades earlier. The film, directed with a minimum of emotional manipulation by veteran Stephen Frears, is at times funny and uplifting, but the lighter elements don't conceal the deep underlying tragedy: a mother and son desperately trying to find each other, stymied by people desperate to protect their secrets, and unable to reconnect before one of them dies.
Philomena uses flashbacks to tell the genesis of events. Philomena, pregnant and disowned by her family, gives birth to a son at an Irish convent in the early 1950s. She is kept there, virtually a prisoner, for three years, toiling for the nuns as compensation for the "costs" incurred by her labor. Her son, Anthony, is sold to a wealthy American couple. Philomena will never see him again and, prevented by a document she signed from being entitled to records surrounding his adoption, she lives to old age haunted by regret. Not until meeting journalist Sixsmith in 2004 is she able to do something about it. Utilizing his investigative instincts, Sixsmith determines that Anthony was taken to the United States. Following the cold trail, the odd couple flies to Washington where Sixsmith discovers that Anthony, renamed Michael Hess, was a rising star in the Republican Party during the 1980s, ascending to the position of Chief Legal Counsel for George H.W. Bush. A closeted gay man, Michael died in 1995 of AIDS. While the discovery of her Michael/Anthony's death might seem to be the end of the story, it instead represents a beginning, as Philomena and Sixsmith seek to reconstruct his life and learn what kind of person he was.
Although the screenplay contains samples of Steve Coogan's trademark dry humor, it's mostly a serious effort, as befits the story it tells. Philomena is as much a detective story as a character-based piece, although the convolutions of Sixsmith's intensive investigation have been necessarily watered-down and condensed to make them cinematic. The film contains elements of the "mismatched buddy" story, with Philomena and Sixsmith starting out as reluctant allies with very different views on religion before developing a strong friendship, and the "fish out of water" tradition, with provincial Philomena overwhelmed by the U.S. in the early 2000s.
The most poignant relationship detailed in Philomena is the one between the title character and her dead son. Frears and actress Judi Dench, exhibiting her range in a performance that will end up on the short list for Oscar nominations, manage the difficult task of causing the audience to care about this exhumation of the past and its occasionally surprising revelations. There's more emotion than one might initially expect: sadness at the missed opportunities, frustration and anger at the self-serving and shallow motivations of people and institutions, and quiet satisfaction at the way Philomena achieves closure.
Frears isn't subtle in the way he condemns the actions of the Irish Catholic Church during the 1950s. With Coogan playing the part of his proxy, the director levels a vicious blow against the institution the likes of which hasn't been seen on screen since The Magdalene Sisters. He's equally critical of the homophobia of the 1980s United States, especially for those with an allegiance to the Republican Party. Philomena, a portrait of tolerance and forgiveness, stands in counterpoint to the anger expressed by Sixsmith.
Philomena is low-key and developed in a very anti-Hollywood fashion. Frears never artificially amps up the emotional beats. It's simple and well-told, although nothing about it is breathtakingly original. In the movie, Philomena's tale is repeatedly referred to as a "human interest story" and, indeed, that's what it proves to be.
Philomena (United Kingdom/United States, 2013)
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Mare Winningham
Screenplay: Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope, based on the book by Martin Sixsmith
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Music: Alexandre Desplat
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company
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