You might easily overlook “Philomena,” not only because one of its main characters is an older woman, but also because of the sparse advertising. Yet “Philomena” is about mothers and sons and the concept of sin and how one should treat sinners.
Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, the movie begins with journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) trying to make sense of his life: he’s lost his job in the Labour government in the United Kingdom. At the same time Philomena (Judi Dench) confesses to her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) the story of her eldest son. The daughter is one of the wait people at a party Martin attends and she approaches him about doing a story.
Philomena’s father had six children and sent his three girls to be educated at an Irish Catholic convent after his wife died. Philomena and her sisters only came home for two weeks a year. We never meet the father or the siblings. We only see the convent-educated girl as she meets a young man at a carnival. She never saw him again, but soon enough learned she was pregnant.
Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark as the young Philomena in flashbacks), pregnant and unwed at 18, was sent to a convent in Roscrea where she slaved away to repay the Catholic Church for her care and for the weight of her sins. She was there with her son, Anthony, until a wealthy American Catholic couple adopted him. Although she had visited the convent over the years, looking for her son, she was always turned away.
Initially, Martin doesn’t want to do a human interest piece because “Human interest stories are about vulnerable, weak-mined and ignorant people made for weak-minded, vulnerable ignorant people.” Martin does get roped in to this story, selling the story for publication.
Martin and Philomena visit the convent only to find suspicious resistance. Through Martin’s connections and on the publisher’s tab, the fly to Washington, D.C. and look through files. They eventually find her son and learn he had been searching for Philomena, even going back to the convent.
Martin is a bit of a snob; he was a high-level political reporter and yet Philomena puts him in his place through her faith and forgiveness. Martin Sixsmith would write a book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” which was published in 2009.
The script is moving but director Stephen Frears can’t overcome the glaring problem of the characterization of Philomena.
In reality, Philomena Lee isn’t so daft. According to a recent New York Times article a lot of the amusing funny bits didn’t actually happen. “They really make me look like a silly billy, don’t you think?” she told the reporter. While she accepts the screenwriters’ efforts to give some humor to this story, I’m not sure we should. Dench’s character becomes one of contradictions: She had enough intelligence to become a psychiatric nurse and yet she seems to be over fond of the romances and unable to discern when Martin is unenthusiastic with her retelling of the stories.
Philomena didn’t travel to the United States with Martin during his search–that’s almost half the film and much of the time is spent with humorous little incidents about Philomena’s eager delight at free champagne on the flight over, the big buffets and the Latino omelet chef. She becomes an endearingly silly old lady.
This isn’t to say denigrate Judi Dench’s performance. Dench is a stolid Philomean–she’s not quick or witty or particularly strong-willed as Dench was in “Mrs. Brown.” Dench’s character Philomena Lee is a real person who made a mistake; she trusted the wrong man and yet she also morphs into a little old lady with boring long-winded stories. The emotional resonance of the movie clashes with the dotty ending. It’s as if the screenwriters were afraid of the movie might become to maudlin or somber.
To be fair, Martin didn’t make that comment I quote above, but he still says he was exactly that guy. As a serious reporter he was drawn to the story because “it also had this wider political and social significance as well” and some feel the script was to soft on the Catholic Church, a “sanitized” version of a corrupt system .
Philomena Lee, now 80, is hopeful that this movie will help change minds and hearts and even the law regarding adoption in Ireland. The questions that linger is what is the greater sin: fornication, lying or forgetting mercy and kindness?
Spoiler alert: For information on Philomena Lee’s lost child, click this link.