Unmoved by a bittersweet drama
The demonisation of the Church that seems so much a part of recent films goes on apace with this story – based on real life – of a young girl, the eponymous Philomena (Judi Dench), who became pregnant outside wedlock in the 1950s.
After her child (Anthony) was born she worked in a Magdalen laundry for four years. Like the other unmarried mothers resident there, she was only allowed see him for an hour each day. Anthony was then put up for adoption with a couple she didn’t meet. He was removed from the convent and moved to the couple’s American home without her being apprised of any of the details, along with another little girl who became his adoptive sister.
The film begins on Anthony’s 50th birthday. An emotional Philomena decides she’ll seek him out. She recruits a recently sacked political journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), to help her find him. The Church blocks their enquiries in Ireland so they travel to the U.S. for some answers as to how Anthony’s life went.
The film is directed by Stephen Frears. He seems to patronise the character of Philomena with her simple faith. Her unsophisticated nature is contrasted sharply with Sixsmith’s world-weary cynicism, the implication being that to be unsophisticated is to be naïve.
She refers to ‘Oxford’ as ‘Oxbridge’ and doesn’t ‘get’ his sense of humour. Despite being twittery, she’s a very intelligent woman. The fact that she’s willing to forgive the nuns for their cruelty to her (and indeed to Anthony) makes her a much softer character than Sixsmith, whose anger at the Church remains more dogged.
His trivialisation of her ‘blind’ faith, in contrast to his own atheistic orientation, forms the nexus of many of the scenes. Her expletives make her a figure of fun in the eyes of Sixsmith, if not Frears. The film seems anti-Irish as well as anti-clerical. Philomena is frequently portrayed as “the silly little Irish woman” (albeit with a heart of gold).
She berates Sixsmith for his know-all attitude but the pair of them develop an unlikely friendship as they go on the trail of her long-lost son, their search repeatedly frustrated by clerical duplicity.
One also has to contend with the revelation that the Church has been ‘selling’ babies to rich Americans for vast sums. The fact that the wealthy movie star Jane Russell adopted an Irish child has always been common knowledge, but here the practice becomes almost Church policy.
The two main stones thrown at the Church in recent years have hinged around secrecy and sex. Both feature prominently here, the latter one copperfastened by the fact that Anthony turns out to be gay, a revelation received by Philomena with a total lack of surprise in one of the film’s weakest scenes.
“I always knew he was gay,” she claims. But how could a mother who last saw her son when he was four – clutching an airplane – make this presumption? Her attitude to subjects like this, coupled with her occasionally ‘fruity’ language, seems distinctly out of character. Dench’s accent also seems wrong. It’s too like her normal voice and not Irish enough. (Some others in the cast, in contrast, have stage-Irish ones).
The film will give enemies of the Church another opportunity to lash out at it. Its final message of one’s need to bury the past will probably be forgotten by the scandalous nature of what takes place beforehand.
Either way, this bittersweet story of a much-wronged woman (which Sixsmith also related in his book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee) will no doubt keep tongues wagging for years to come.