Philomena – 2013
There is a reason why Judy Dench is such a popular actress. She is very good at what she does. She has a way of making everything seem so real and plausible. Her acting is subtle and yet captivatingly dynamic. She commands attention when she is on the screen. Stephen Holden of the New York Times summed it up perfectly, saying that, “Dench makes you believe her character has the capacity to forgive provides the movie with a solid moral center.”
Furthermore, concerning the movie as a whole, he went on to say, “Philomena has many facets. It is a comedic road movie, a detective story, an infuriated anticlerical screed, and an inquiry into faith and the limitations of reason, all rolled together. Fairly sophisticated about spiritual matters, it takes pains to distinguish faith from institutionalized piety. It also has a surprising political subtext in its comparison of the church’s oppression and punishment of unmarried sex … with homophobia and the United States government’s reluctance to deal with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.”
That’s saying a lot about a single film, but it is mostly true. Based on a true story, the film stars Dench as an old Irish woman named Philomena who has been searching for her son for the past fifty years. When she was a young woman, played by Sophie Kennedy Clark, her son was forcibly taken from her and sold into adoption by the Catholic Church. Like many unwed mothers, her father had sent her to a convent, and after giving birth, she was put to work in the laundry room. She was allowed to visit with her son only one hour every day. Then one day, the child was sold to a couple who took him away, and she never saw him again.
Philomena searches for him in vain. She asked the convent for records of who had taken her son, but was denied. Then in comes a journalist named Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan. He is used to writing historical or political stories, but he is down on his luck and willing to do a human interest story. He hears of Philomena and her search for her son, and the two meet. They get along well enough but their differences soon become evident. She is a woman of faith, and he is an atheist. Together they visit the convent but they are told that all the records of the adoption were lost in a fire, though an old contract signed by Philomena saying that she would never attempt to contact her son is uncovered. Suspicious, Sixsmith begins doing his research.
At a local pub, Sixsmith is told that many of the children were adopted by Americans, and his search moves to the States. To make a long story short, they find that her son’s name had been changed from Anthony to Michael. He was a closeted gay republican who was a white house official in both the Regan and Bush administrations. He had already died of aids. They find and visit his partner, Peter Olsson, played by Peter Hermann, who tells them that Michael had asked to be buried at the convent in Ireland in hopes of his mother finding him some day. It was very touching, and it was in these scenes where Dench really shined. Though, to give credit where credit is due, Coogan also did a fine job.
Of course, Sixsmith and Philomena go back to the convent and learn that one of the old nuns who had been there during Philomena’s time there had known all along that the two had been trying to find each other. In the name of religious piety, Sister Hildegard, played by Barbara Jefford, had actively worked to keep them apart because she disapproved of a woman having sex outside of wedlock. This is why critics of the film called it anti-Catholic, but I disagree for two very specific reasons.
First, if this story was based on a true story, and these things actually happened, then you can’t blame the real Philomena or the filmmakers for telling the truth. After all, if we, as a society, cannot acknowledge the truth about such stories, then we are bound to repeat them. Like it or not, despite all their historical inaccuracies, films have a way of informing the public and bringing to light things that should not be forgotten. Movies do it all the time, and I think that is all for the better.
Second, the movie didn’t end on a hateful rant against the Catholics. In fact, it celebrated the Catholic faith through Philomena, who forgave Sister Hildegard. In a wonderful statement about the nature of true faith, Philomena says, “Sister Hildegard, I want you to know that I forgive you.” Angry, Sixsmith says, “What? Just like that?” Her response was perfect and bears repeating. She said, “It’s not ‘just like that’… it’s hard. That’s hard for me. But I don’t want to hate people.” And if that isn’t a show of true faith in the Christian religion, I don’t know what is. In other words, the film wasn’t anti-Catholic. It was anti-Sister Hildegard and those who share her self-righteous and unforgiving attitude.
The movie itself engaging, had a good message, some sensitive directing by Stephen Frears, and a gorgeous soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat. It had some wonderful acting, and really touched me spiritually. Forgiveness is sometimes one of the hardest things to embrace, and Philomena did so with grace and dignity.