You would imagine that the nuns’ shrug of indifference to the grueling breach labour of a ‘fallen woman,’ and their cold refusal to administer drugs of any sort, would set the tone pretty indefinitely for the Oscar-nominated Philomena.
The near slave labour of an Abbey where parents sent their unwed, pregnant daughters, and the relentless iron fist of the nuns who took them in (and sold their children for 1000 pounds) is not exactly what we would call the make-up of a cheerful film. Indeed it would have been very different if it were, at its centre, about the bleak history of adoptions by the Irish Catholic Church.
Instead this is a story of a stubborn, compassionate, fierce-hearted woman named Philomena—who delights in the plot details of predictable romance novels, and truly believes that everyone she meets is “one in a million”.
Philomena captures the essence of a person’s heart, rather than the cruel injustice of her past. And I think that is precisely why it succeeds.
Based on real events, the film follows Philomena’s search for the son that was taken from her fifty years earlier. Martin Sixsmith, a cynical and disgraced former political journalist, makes up the second half of this mismatched duo when he begrudgingly takes on Philomena’s ‘human interest’ story for a popular magazine.
Their search takes them from the Abbey in Ireland to Washington DC and back again with a backdrop of lively, spirited music by the incomparable Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech; Argo). The soundtrack is simply an extension of Philomena herself and, if I had my way, Desplat would probably be taking the Oscar home for it.
The direction by Stephen Frears followed this same design and was beautiful in its simplicity, and helped to keep the film light and feel good.
This is all not to say that the horrific moments didn’t leave their mark. The birth scene was nearly too excruciating to watch, as was a young Philomena’s desperate but futile attempts to escape the prison-like conditions of the Abbey in time to keep her three-year-old from the arms of his new mother. (Sophie Kennedy Clark played Young Philomena to perfection in these scenes).
Despite having seen little of Dame Judi Dench’s work (shame on me, I know), her reputation obviously preceded her, and she did not disappoint. Specifically when considering that Philomena was a role that could easily have been pushed over the edge to preachy and sentimental. Dench takes us to the edge of that, but thankfully never topples over it.
Like Philomena, Steve Coogan’s Martin never falls victim to the over-sentimentality. Throughout the film, he remains utterly unable to understand Philomena on any level, and manages to noticeably soften towards her without deviating too far from his pessimistic world-view, saving us all from what could very well have been a sappy, life-lesson, find-the-good-within-you sort of film.
In fact, Philomena also manages to never blame the church outright, and ultimately exalts Philomena’s capacity for forgiveness over all else, without beating the audience over the head with it, or even suggesting that this was the right thing for her to do. And I personally think that was an incredible feat.
Thankfully though, we have Coogan’s Martin—an atheist and cynic—to stand in for the rest of us less-forgiving folk. This not only helps keep the film from dipping into mawkish territory, but is particularly satisfying when Martin feels quite within his rights to verbally assault frail, wheelchair ridden, hundred-year-old nuns who, so easy to point their fingers at others, seem to have trouble seeing their own sins. This is perhaps one of the strongest moments in the film.
I was a bit dissatisfied with the lack of explanation to Philomena’s sudden need to reveal the existence of a child she had kept secret for fifty years, but I suppose when that’s my only real plot complaint, this movie has probably done something right.
Having said that, I don’t think Philomena necessarily has the make-up for a Best Picture win. Judi Dench does, of course, but I don’t think she’ll get it this year, and Coogan was incredibly strong and, in many ways, far more interesting than Dench, but didn’t receive a nomination. But, he is up for the film in the Best Adapted Screenplay category along with Jeff Pope for their adaptation of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith. I doubt this film will make many waves at the Oscars, but I do suspect it will be cleaning house at the BAFTAs.
Philomena is, most importantly, a film about the awe-inspiring human capacity to forgive, but on a more general level, it is a tale of the bonds of motherhood. So appropriately, in Philomena I saw my own mother—twenty years her junior, but standing at roughly the same five feet and two inches—unthreatening in appearance and naturally inclined to place nice, but in the set of her jaw and the line of her shoulders sits the utter willingness to do anything it takes for the child she loves.
If you like your movies heartfelt, but light on the sap, Philomena is the one for you.
Stayed tuned for Keely’s review of Dallas Buyer’s Club on Thursday!
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