The Premise: A woman’s 50 year search for her child takes her from Ireland, to Washington and, back.
—— The Review
Philomena (Dame Judi Dench, Goldeneye, 1995) had a baby out of wedlock. She was forced to sign away her parental rights and he was given up for adoption. For 50 years she wrestled with her Catholic guilt of whether it was a sin to have had premarital sex or a sin to keep the secret from her family. When she finally she comes clean and tells her daughter her dark secret who finds a reporter who reluctantly agrees to tell her story.
In a story with as many twists as a Raymond Chandler novel the search for Philomena’s child Anthony is wrought with lies, coverups and, secrets that finally lead the pair to Washington, D.C. where they find Anthony’s family. All of whom do not want to talk. But Philomena’s child-like persistence and unfaltering faith is more than enough to break down the walls of this cold past.
Philomena the film is more than a story about a woman who lost her child but about a man who lost his faith. His faith in humanity. A Cynical man who only sees the world in Greys; who expects the worst in people and situations. A man who, by spending time with Philomena who gladly staunchly takes the good with the bad, might find that tiny spark of joy in the world that he once had before the big bad world broke him down.
The film starts in a Doctor’s office where Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, 2010) is informed he has high blood pressure and should take up jogging to calm his nerves. He has recently been fired from the Civil Service for voicing his opinion that an important piece of information not be covered up and is unsure how he is going to make a living. Coogan plays Martin with such an internal rage that you can feel it in every word. His contempt for his life at the moment and, his need to differentiate himself from the middle class is ever present inside each syllable he grits out through his clenched teeth.
There is a strong statement on faith, here. You have the devout Catholic Philomena who has such faith in her God that he must have wanted the Nuns to take her child away from her; his plan is beyond her mortal mind to comprehend. You have Martin, who has broken free from any forms of religion and yet, when asked by Philomena if he believes in God he falters with his answer stating that it is a hard question to answer. Philomena’s answer to the same: An emphatic Yes. Martin’s internal struggle manifesting itself in health problems and resentment.
Martin, like most Athiests these days argues the same points: How could your God allow for so many bad things to happen. Philomena wonders that, too but because of her complete faith she carries on without voicing her question. She believes and that is enough for her. She finds joy in the simple things like, omelette stations at buffets and silly love stories in Harlequin romance novels. She is not as ignorant as Martin’s first opinion of her is. She chooses to stay child-like because being cynical only gives you heart disease. Martin is a man who takes nothing at face value; that God can't exist because he has done him this injustice by having him lose his job. Whereas Philomena looks at it that because he lost his job they met and went on this adventure…. where she “met a Mexican, and they don’t have those in England.”
The driving force for Philomena is more than just finding her son but for validation that perhaps he thought of her even a fraction as much as she thought of him for those tortuous fifty years. To be remembered is a kind of immortality; Philomena admits that she signed away her rights to her son when she was 14 because she had been wicked and that that was the right thing to do. She is constantly aware that the life that Anthony had in the U.S. is head and shoulders above the life he would have had in the U.K. and would never have wanted to take that from him. She only needs to hear that he mentioned Ireland or her, once… just once, and she would go home and carry on content with the knowledge that she was with him in spirit.
What is striking about the script that Coogan and Pope have written is the line they dance along between drama and comedy. Never taking away from the weight of a woman wronged yet, shown us human moments of joy within the black. Indeed we are introduced to real people. These are complex characters wrestling with their own views on religion, politics, family duty, depression, fear, and still working to keep themselves uplifted enough to put one foot in front of the other. Philomena and Martin are two people who would never have crossed paths in the regular day to day but the search for Anthony has not only collided two opposite worlds but caused them both to take a look inward at what makes them do what they do.
On the other hand the story is a detective story complete with misleads and doors closing in faces and secrets. As if the characters were not enough, to know that this was the true story of Philomena who desperately needed to know her child was safe, and not homeless or worse. Elements of noir are strewn throughout this story as Nuns tell lies and political scandals are revealed. Yet, never does the film feel as if any of the pieces are out of place or taking power from the overall story.
Philomena never feels as if it has an agenda. It does not want you to believe in God or take aim at Him. It does not want you to judge the upper class or feel sorry for the working class. It wants you to learn to carry on. If anything it is making a statement on how a little bit of us has been lost. That something happens between being a teenager and the rest of our lives that we lost our ability to forgive, that we lost our unfaltering ability to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. That bad things happen but after they do they are in the past. We shouldn't define ourselves from our past losses we should grow from them.
A remarkable achievement in character.
And with a tremendous script coupled with Stephen Frears' brilliant direction we have a wonderful story about what it takes to carry on. A reminder to all of us who have filled all the negative space in our lives with work and worry and stress and regret, that we need to remember who we were before practicality took a hold of us and broke us. That we need to shed our past sorrows and be present in the now where we have family who love us and a hand to hold when it is cold.
As Pollyanna said, “When you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will” and Philomena should be a lesson to us all.