Philomena

Evil’s good

philomenaMy mother texted me last night about Steve Coogan’s appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, and expressed some excitement about the fact that Philomena Lee’s story is true.  I responded with equal excitement, mentioning that the film (seen by me, unseen by her) was the best thing I’ve seen Coogan do in a long time (or perhaps “ever” was the word I used).  She responded “Good” and left me hanging, but it reminded me that I actually wanted to write about this film.

Philomena is actually directed by Stephen Frears, but one must love the fact that the writer is getting so much of the attention.  Would he receive this attention if he weren’t already a beloved comic actor and celebrity?  Just let me have this moment before you answer.

The film follows the surprisingly accurate narrative of Philomena (Judi Dench), who meets disgraced Labour government adviser Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the latter of whom is advised to write a “human interest” story to buffer his career.  He abhors the idea until he runs into Philomena’s daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) at a cocktail party.  Jane relays the recent discovery that her mother had another child when she was a teenager.  Philomena’s father, however, sent her to Sean Ross Abbey for this “sin,” and the church snatched the child away as part of a series of real-life “forced adoptions” – that is to say, the church kidnapped and sold children to wealthy Americans.  Philomena has always thought of looking for her son, Anthony, with whom she only spent about a year before he was taken.  Martin begrudgingly agrees to write the story (despite his greater interest in writing a book on Russian history), and he meets Philomena, whose Irish Catholic sensibilities do not exactly mesh with his own atheism.  Above all, he cannot understand how she could still be religious after the nightmare she went through at the hands of the church, particularly Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford).

What follows is equal parts buddy comedy, road movie, and straight-played drama.  Philomena has concerns about what kind of person her son, renamed Michael by his adoptive parents, might have become after moving to America (the most dire of which is “What if he’s obese?”).  The good news is that he did relatively well for himself, becoming a senior official in the Reagan administration, but the bad news is that he died of AIDS in the ’90s.  With this discovery, Martin and Philomena become a bit closer, the unfairness of it all being that they must now hasten back to Ireland.  Luckily for his story, Martin took both “happy” and “sad” photos of Philomena in preparation for either outcome.  Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley), Martin’s editor, doesn’t see a problem with anything that’s happened.

Philomena, however, decides that she wants to stay in America and meet people who knew her son.  The duo begin with Michael’s colleagues, who show Philomena photos of Michael and his “friend” Pete (Peter Hermann), but Philomena insists that she has always known that Michael was a “gay homosexual.”  She and Martin visit Pete, who inexplicably threatens to have them arrested if they do not leave his property.  Philomena talks her way into his home, however, and finds out that Michael and Pete went to Ireland years ago for the very same purpose: to meet Philomena and discover Michael’s roots.  The convent, however, claimed that his mother had abandoned him and that they had lost contact with her (quite untrue, since Philomena had been visiting the convent so often that every employee knew who she was).  For Philomena, this is enough, for she’d assumed Michael had never wondered about where he came from.  They also learn that he is buried in the convent’s graveyard, where the story began, and everything comes full circle.

The tension reaches its peak during a final confrontation with the seemingly ancient Sister Hildegarde, who rolls around the convent’s private quarters, stoically waiting to die.  Martin confronts her, eager to get answers to why she would not only sell off Philomena’s child, but lie to a family for decades, adding that “If Jesus were here, he’d tip you out of that fucking wheelchair.”  But the decision of what to do is ultimately up to Philomena.  Forgiveness has never bothered me so much.

Judi Dench does not need my approval, but she inhabits the heart of this film with a full range of every possible emotion.  Coogan complements her nicely, acting as both chauffeur and lens, but Philomena herself is aware of this lens, and will not allow Martin to color the story of her family any way he wants it just for the sake of giving the public something to get riled about.  Anna Maxwell Martin plays Jane with such a confident delicateness that I was sad to see her fade into irrelevance once the adventure began, but she’s a treat when she’s on.  Hildegarde is played as a pure villain, which we must assume someone with that name and station in life could easily become, but it may have been effective to actually provide Philomena with the apology she deserves, or at the very least, to give another layer to someone who could be (and is) such an unrepentant monster.

Still waiting on an adaptation of Sixsmith’s Russian history texts.  Nope; couldn’t type that with a straight face.

Philomena (2013); written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope; based upon The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith; directed by Stephen Frears, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

 

 

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