Philomena – A Review

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White hair. White hair as far as the eye could see. That was what I was greeted with when I walked into the cinema to see Philomena. This was cause for concern, given my recent experience at All is Lost. In my humble experience, women over the age of 50 are absolutely the worst offenders when it comes to talking during a movie. They were all already chatting up a storm loudly as a found the farthest seat possible from their gaggle and sighed. This was not a promising development.

I was already on the fence about seeing Philomena; while the story of a woman who is searching for the child that she was forced to give up for adoption by the Catholic Church sounded possibly interesting, if it wasn’t for the possible Oscar nomination for Judi Dench I don’t know that I would have been properly incentivized to go see the film in the theater. My original hesitation was that the film would be too sentimental for my tastes; it has been well established in this blog that I am a heartless monster who has no patience for the saccharine sweetness that so many movie goers enjoy. Though the screenplay was co-written by Steve Coogan, who I like and think is very funny, I wasn’t convinced that given the story that it wouldn’t lean a little too heavy on soppy emotion for my personal preference. So walking into a theater full of Philomenas wasn’t assuaging my reluctance. I contemplated standing up and making my own personal announcement about behavior in the theater, but given the recent shooting at a Florida cinema over texting I was worried that such behavior would be viewed as aggressive and would result in my ban from the theater. This looked like an excitable bunch. So I held my tongue and hoped for the best.

In the end, it wasn’t an issue. Once the feature started, everyone quieted down and if there was any chatter, I couldn’t hear it. I think that it helped that Philomena was a very sweet movie that totally held the attention of the audience – myself included. The film managed to walk the fine line of mawkishness and sympathy quite well; it helped that though this was a very sad story the film was filled with a lot of humor and kindness. Most of the credit for this goes to Coogan, who starred, and Dench. They are both incredibly charming in their roles and have very nice screen chemistry. They serve as interesting counterpoints to each other in that they react very differently to the events as they unfold. The film is ultimately not just about a mother’s quest to find her child, but also about faith and forgiveness (and a little bit about patience thrown in for good measure).

The film is primarily focused on Philomena’s desire to find the child that she has kept a secret for 50 years. When she became pregnant out of wedlock as a teenager, Philomena (Dench) is disowned by her family and sent to live with nuns. After giving birth, her son is put up for adoption with her dubious consent. Philomena went on to marry and have additional children, but the guilt and shame of her sin kept her from confessing about the existence of her first born (though she had tried to find him, to no avail). A chance interaction with journalist Martin Sixsmith gives Philomena the chance to try and locate her long lost child. The two team up to try and get the answers that Philomena has been searching for.

However, the film is also about the relationship between Philomena and Martin. When the two of them set out on the road together, they have very little in common. Martin takes on the human interest story as a way to rehabilitate his career after a very public firing, but he feels that the story is below him and has very little patience for Philomena’s simpler ways. Over the course of their journey, their relationship changes and evolves and Coogan and Dench beautifully depict this tentative friendship. The scenes of them feeling each other out and adapting to each other’s personality create most of the laughs in a film that sadly needs them. At its heart, this is a tragic tale but their interactions help cut the melancholy of this true story.

There has been scuttlebutt about this film being anti-Catholic, which I think is completely unfounded. While some members of the Church did some reprehensible things, one of the threads that is woven throughout the film is Philomena’s generally unwavering faith despite these misdeeds. The film is based on Sixsmith’s article and later book on the real life events surrounding Philomena Lee; the Church may be unhappy with these practices being revealed, but they can’t deny that they actually happened. Philomena was far from the only woman in Ireland who had such an experience. Though I admit that I am not religious, I found the film to be fairly balanced given what transpired. The depiction of the nuns, in particular, didn’t paint them all with the same brush. In a lot of ways, Philomena reinforced the power of belief and faith. To call this film anti-Catholic is to completely overblow the lovely story that is told. To criticize the behavior of some members of the church is not the same thing as casting dispersions on an entire faith.

Philomena is not without flaws. Some of the character development feels a bit rushed; for example, Martin is not initially interested doing the story and then quickly changes his mind with very little explanation. There is a lot of story to tell in Philomena, but I would have appreciated giving some of these moments a little time to breathe. While the film does not careen into the realm of overly sappy, it did feel a bit light given the subject matter. I would have appreciated a bit more depth. As much as I enjoyed Dench and thought that she was very good, I’m not completely convinced that this is a performance or a movie that should be a contender at the Academy Awards (as it was at the Golden Globes). Still, Philomena was a vastly better film than I expected; the emotional moments felt earned rather than manipulated, which is an important distinction.

Philomena is at its heart a sad story, but it manages to tell it without completely giving over to being a depressing movie. There is a lot of tragedy on the screen, but I left the film feeling relatively upbeat. I’m interested in learning more about the true story – I knew very little going into the film about the ultimate outcome of their search – and have to admit that given what unfolded my reaction would have been much closer to that depicted by Coogan rather than Dench. If the real Philomena reacted with half the grace and dignity to the developments that were reflected in the film, she is clearly a better person that I am. Strong performances by Coogan and Dench make Philomena a film worth seeing. It’s an ideal movie to take your mom to.

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