As the worlds of an Irish catholic and an atheist ex-politican collide, Stephen Frears’ Philomena sees a simple faith go head to head with Catholic conspiracy.
Losing My Religion by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Adapting Martin Sixsmith’s autobiographical account of his quest with septuagenarian Philomena Lee to track down the son she hadn’t seen in nearly five decades, must have looked like cinematic gold for two reasons; a heartbreaking story of forced adoption from a Magdalene laundry in a Catholic convent and a heartwarming “human interest” story of a former door-stopping journalist and hard-nosed Cabinet press officer on the road with a little old Irish lady. All topped off with a performance from Judi Dench. Steve Coogan, who also produces Philomena, plays it straighter than ever. And his Martin Sixsmith is perfectly cast – his sharp-witted cynicism lost on Philomena’s open-hearted goodness and simple, unfailing Irish faith. Philomena though is more than the tear-jerking human melodrama of a woman tracking down her son, as it questions, with its duel between head and heart, the exploitation of the sob story.
Forced to resign as chief press secretary, former journalist Martin Sixsmith finds himself unemployed and with no hope of a political career. Instead of plunging into writing a book on Russian history, he receives, at a party one night, a magazine commission for a “human interest” story as well as a chance lead from a waitress whose mother recently told her of a by-now 50-year-old son who was taken from her from a convent in Ireland. After meeting the good-natured, easygoing Philomena at a local Harvester, the two head off for Roscrea to confront the Mother Superior and learn the truth about her son. But fobbed off with tea, bannock bread and tall stories about a great fire and forgetful nuns, Martin and Philomena are left with no option but to head to Washington DC to track him down. Only to discover that it may not be the land of dreams after all.
Recalling her story in flashback, Philomena comes down hard against the Catholic Church. With its butter-wouldn’t-melt Mother Superior and their lies of a great fire that destroyed all its records (which the villagers suggest wasn’t an accident so much as a bonfire) and their wilful prevention of Philomena finding her son – her carnal sin no lessened by time or age, her pain a living torment conferred on her for her lifetime. Not that her Catholic faith prevents her from doubting God’s existence or even tarnishing her son’s memory when she finds out he was a gay Republican who died of AIDS. But it is called into question when she finds herself unable to confess or bless herself, realising that the Church conspired against her to prevent her from meeting her son – a fact that becomes even more unbearable when she discovers the sisters of the convent lied to him too, telling Anthony she gave him away willingly and hiding her attempts to find him as much as his grave within their grounds. But it’s a faith that in the end allows her to dig deep and forgive them – finding relief and closure at her son’s graveside untainted with neither hate nor anger.
Standing in opposition to Philomena’s simple faith and her “vulnerable, weak-minded” sensibility, reared on a diet of the Daily Mail, Reader’s Digest and romantic fiction, is the truth-seeking non-believer Martin Sixsmith, cynically chalking up a tabloid feature out of Philomena’s tragic life story. He’s not the most likely feature writer, but he’s the perfect contrast to Philomena on their road trip of discovery, courteously circumnavigating her offers to lend him the next romantic novel. There is a type of exploitation as he plots his story, determined he knows already how it will end – with a simple “Hello, Mum.” But the truth gets in the way of his good story. And while he doesn’t have to caricature his nuns to turn them into villains, his story turns out to be fortuitously dramatic – with a conspiracy of secrets and lies and a narrative that goes full circle. But as Philomena forbids Martin from publishing her story (only later to change her mind – even a clergy-harming truth cannot be a bad one), the ethics of recounting this “human interest” story are laid bare. And the dialogue between subject and author continue as Frears elevates Philomena in one fell swoop from a tabloid story into an examination of the ethics of storytelling.
As Philomena and Sixsmith journey through Ireland and the States, Philomena reveals a complementary odd couple, Philomena tracking down her son thanks to the resources and know-how of Martin’s paper and the stone-cold journalist slowly melting through the simple heartfelt pleas of a mother seeking a final connection with her son. It’s a devil’s pact redeemed by a communion of souls, but which in the final reel, with Philomena’s courageous act of forgiveness and Sixsmith’s angry table-turning, sends the two back to opposite poles, armed with a new-found understanding and mutual respect. It’s Frears’ respect for the battered faith of a little old Irishwoman that lends Philomena its edge, albeit lace-edged and tea-scented. And with a brilliant performance from the Dame and a sharp, snappy script, Philomena is a touching journey into the lives of others – lost but not forgotten.
Philomena is released on 1st November 2013 in the UK