Half comedy of manners, half poignant memoir, Philomena is an engaging adaptation of a shocking true story. Director Stephen Frears and stars Dame Judi Dench (Skyfall) and Steve Coogan (Tropic Thunder) dramatize The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a 2009 article in the Guardian (which was later made into a book) in a moving and, for the most part, balanced film which certainly deserves its four Oscar and BAFTA nominations.
Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist still stinging from his recent firing from a government position. He stumbles across the seeds of a potential story in Dame Dench’s Philomena Lee, a retired Irish nurse. Philomena tells her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) that as a teenager, she had a son, who was adopted away from her in his infancy and of whose later fate she knows nothing. Jane’s chance meeting with Martin leads to her pitching her mother’s plight as a potential article, in the interest of enlisting his help in tracking down Philomena’s long-lost child.
An inveterate cynic, Martin scorns the idea of writing ‘human interest stories’; he insists they are meant for “vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people”. (His editor, played by Game of Thrones’ Michelle Fairley, implies he may be right – she insists with delightful pragmatism that the article’s ending must be very happy or very sad, but it makes no difference which.) But he soon relents, and discovers that the truth about Philomena’s past is much murkier than either of them suspected. Beginning at the convent to which she was sent to give birth, their journey takes them across the Atlantic to Washington, DC, and from there further still. (In the interest of avoiding spoilers, we will suffice it to say that for-profit adoption isn’t the most questionable aspect of the nuns’ actions.) All along the way, Philomena’s dotty naïveté clashes with Martin’s world-weary snark, creating a very watchable odd-couple dynamic that later matures into something approaching understanding.
Frears, Dench, and Coogan have created an enjoyable and generally even-handed adaptation of Sixsmith’s investigation. Veteran Oscar nominee Dame Judi sheds her James-Bond steeliness in favor of a bubbly performance that nevertheless resists caricature. She may burble about croutons and hotel pillow-mints, and she certainly knows how to bend one’s ear (Philomena is particularly cute when describing the anodyne romance novels she loves so much), but her character’s faith – both in her religion and in humanity – is hard-won. Coogan, likewise, never lets his character’s jaded outlook become too boorish. He’s a prickly man, but he means no ill – he’s simply out of his depth with this woman.
Philomena is refreshing in its reluctance to spoon-feed the audience their reactions. A lesser director might sap up the film’s score at the more emotional moments, or push too hard for the moral outrage provoked by the revelations toward the end. Frears instead trusts the facts of the case to do that work for him, and trusts the audience to draw their own conclusions.
Any Oscar-nominated film is sure to court a spot of controversy (an unfortunate facet of awards-season campaigning), and Philomena is no different. The film received a scathing review in the New York Post, a one-star panning that called it a “hateful and boring attack on Catholics”. Whether critic Kyle Smith was genuinely offended or perhaps just a bit hungry for page views, he soon received an answer from the real Philomena Lee herself, who has been heavily involved in the film’s production and promotion. She wrote him an open letter, politely but firmly challenging his vitriol and defending the film’s portrayal of her story. The Weinstein Company, ever the opportunists, began using Smith’s review and Philomena’s rebuttal in their advertising campaign, encouraging audiences to “Decide for Yourself!”
In truth, the polemics lie in the Post’s review, not the film itself. Both the nuns’ draconian sternness and Martin Sixsmith’s flippant atheism are contrasted and outshone by Philomena herself. Far from the guileless biddy Martin takes her for at the start, she shows him (and us) the true toughness required to genuinely forgive. Her faith is no facile source of comfort – it has been shaken, tested by fire and disappointment, and redoubled stronger than ever. Though many of us would fester in righteous anger at what she has suffered, she forgives those who have trespassed against her, imitating a God who promises to do the same.
Of course this isn’t to say the film is cheerleading for the Catholic Church, either. The facts of the case are upsetting, and Philomena doesn’t do much to challenge the idea that the Church – at least, the pre-Vatican-II Church – abhors sexual activity entirely. Indeed, it is disappointing that a film so otherwise sensitive in its storytelling features a nun who is little more than a moustache-twirling villain. Though it doesn’t try too much to extrapolate this convent’s actions toward the Church as a whole, it’s unsatisfying to have such a cardboard character sticking out among the otherwise well-rounded writing. This specific Sister is an anachronism from the real-life story, but time-shifting and streamlining are essential to most films based on true stories. It’s just a pity there couldn’t be more nuance to the role.
As for the rest of the film, though, it’s well worth watching whatever one’s beliefs or lack thereof. As for Catholics wondering whether to be offended, it’s important to remember that evidence of wrongdoing within the auspices of the Church should not cause us to circle the wagons. We should want the truth to come to light more avidly than anyone, and avoid knee-jerk reactions to films (and books and other forms of art) we haven’t experienced first-hand. For the most part, Stephen Frears presents a morally complex story and lets us make up our own minds. Mature audiences will thank him for it.
Philomena is rated PG-13 for infrequent strong language and mild sex references.
Its Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score
Its BAFTA nominations: Best Film, Outstanding British Film, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay