' ' Cinema Romantico: Philomena

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


The person of faith is not necessarily without cynicism nor incapable of viewing the world without objectivity. It is just that he or she typically has trust in some sort of higher power and that trust provides a faith that ultimately there is over-arching meaning in both good and bad. The cynic, on the other hand, is not necessarily without faith. It is just that he or she is more prone to view the world with suspicion and to ask questions that hopefully provide concrete answers. This is why “Philomena”, the new fact-based film from English director Stephen Frears, might have been better titled “Philomena & Martin.” It is about two people as much as one, a woman of faith and a cynical man, how their worlds collide, how the core of each person is revealed as more similar than they and we might have previously thought but how, ultimately, the difference between a person of faith and cynic is still very much perceptible.

Based on a book by Martin Sixsmith titled “The Lost Child of Philomena Lane”, the film chronicles its title character (Judi Dench) and her quest to track down the young son taken from her as a fourteen year old in an Irish catholic convent. Now, years later, at the age of sixty, facing pangs of regret, she finds an unlikely ally in Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced journalist who reluctantly chooses to get back into the game by telling a human interest story. The scandal that throws his life out of whack is less an integral part of the story, really, than the requisite jumping off point for Sixsmith. Desperate for work and prodded by his editor, he chooses to heed fate and follow the trail of Philomena and her lost child.

In flashback, we see how this came to pass, Philomena impregnated at 17, thereby disgracing the nuns who give her care and who eventually give the young boy away to a well-to-do couple that comes calling. When Martin inevitably asks why she waited so long to spill her secret, her response will elicit a nod from anyone in the audience suffering from that old Catholic guilt – namely, she too felt she had committed a sin. Except that by not telling anyone and, thus, lying, she was also committing a sin. She then found herself forced to choose between the lesser of two sins.

This bewilders Martin, a pragmatist who doesn’t believe in God, but it also angers him and allays him to Philomena’s aid that much more. When he senses, correctly, that the convent is covering something up, he becomes driven almost as much by spite, by payback that he feels Philomena is owed. Although whether Philomena feels entitled to such payback is an altogether different idea. What sets itself up as a mystery – who is Philomena’s son and where is he? (what you might have figured were spoilers in the preview are barely half the story) – gradually morphs into something else, a rumination on the idea of forgiveness and whether faith can be misplaced in certain people and (supposedly faith-based) institutions.

Martin, of course, is scheduled for an end-of-the-film transformation from the get-go, his empathy toward Philomena blooming with every step of the investigation. That transformation is less than obvious, however, and not all black and white. Coogan, in fact, co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope and utilizes his own talents sublimely, wry comedy that slowly gives way to a softer edge without abating his skepticism, reaching an understanding of the person at the center of his human interest story without his own ideals necessarily being re-shaped. And though the film would not succeed without Coogan, he is in many respects merely paving the way for Dench to take charge and own the proceedings.

Her character's earnestness can threaten to grate - and, in fact, occasionally does grate Martin - but that earnestness is proven to be hard won. It is not an easy life this Philomena has lived, and the injustice she has faced might have left another person faithless. That she maintains it and that she is willing to offer absolution to those who caused her so much misfortune in the first place is wholly commendable. But it is not - and Dench's performance makes this abudantly clear - a blind faith. She knows the score of the game, she knows the way the world works, she has examined it for herself still chosen to put her trust in God.

You don't have to agree, but then she's not asking you to.


Anonymous said...

WOW, what an intro to an excellent review Nick. You are truly one of the best reviewers this side of the blogosphere!

What you said in the last sentence intrigues me even more about this film... "She knows the score of the game, she knows the way the world works, she has examined it for herself still chosen to put her trust in God" Many times people blame God for what really is the failings of man. The story sounds heartbreaking here and surely Dame Judi is the perfect actress to play this role.

Nick Prigge said...

Awwwww, thanks Ruth.

"Many times people blame God for what really is the failings of man." That's very true, and that's totally another idea the movie grapples with. You should check it out when you get the chance. I think it's something you'd really appreciate.