Philomena

January 7, 2014
Judi Dench in 'Philomena', 2013
Judi Dench in 'Philomena', 2013

Stephen Frears is one of the most versatile of British filmmakers, although the standard price of versatility is inconsistency. It’s hard to think of a truly great Frears film but there have been some very good ones. More of a tradesman than an artist, he has the ability to get an outstanding performance out of his actors, as with Helen Mirren in the unlikely role of Queen Elizabeth II.

Philomena is one of Frears’s better efforts. Starring Steve Coogan as journalist, Martin Sixsmith; and Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, an elderly woman in search of a long lost child, it is an engrossing story with the ring of truth. In fact, it is a slightly fictionalised version of a true story told in Sixsmith’s book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee (2010). A few of the more confrontational scenes at the convent, towards the end of the movie, have been added to the mix.

This touch of poetic licence hardly makes the film anti-Catholic, as one American reviewer alleged. It merely clarifies another shameful episode in the history of the Catholic Church that needs to be reconciled with the dictates of conscience. It’s a peculiar irony that a Church that puts such value on confession and absolution has been so unwilling to admit its misdeeds against those enrusted to its care.

Philomena’s story is perhaps not as shocking as the accusations of child sexual abuse that have haunted the Church for the past decade, but it’s another blot on the divine copybook. The story only surfaced because of a conversation former BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, had at a party, after having been sacked from his job as a spin doctor for Prime Minister, Tony Blair. A woman told him how her mother had just confessed that when she was a teenager in Ireland she had given birth to a son. For 50 years she had kept the secret from friends and family.

At a hiatus in his career, Martin decides to follow up what he contemptuously views as “a human interest story”. He meets Philomena and learns how her family gave her over to the nuns, who set her to work in a convent laundry as virtual slave labour. She was allowed to see her three-year-old child, Anthony, for a few hours every afternoon until the day came when he was given to an adoptive couple. After the boy was taken from the convent she would never see him again.

All Philomena’s subsequent attempts to get information from the nuns have proven fruitless. Not only had she signed a contract as a teenager that waived all rights, but the records of the adoption had been lost in a fire.

Martin and Philomena travel to Roscrea Convent, and are met with the same stonewalling, but further research reveals the children were apparently sold to well-off American couples. It was considered to be just punishment for the young mothers because of their “degenerate” behaviour, as well as a nice little earner for the convent.

The next part of the story takes Martin and Philomena to the United States to try and track down the missing Anthony. They succeed in their quest but there are many pieces of the puzzle that need to be put in place. What began as a ‘human interest story’ has turned into a scandal that casts the convent and the Irish Catholic Church in an ugly light.

What saves the film from turning into a docu-drama are the performances of Steve Coogan and Judi Dench in the lead roles. Coogan’s Sixsmith is a cynical, battle-hardened political journalist – a frustrated intellectual who feels he should be writing books about Russian history. His instincts tell him there is a lot more to Philomena’s story than first suspected, but he eventually begins to wonder if this project is only going to cause her more pain than satisfaction.

Judi Dench, who has played every possible role in recent years, including James Bond’s boss – M, seems perfectly at home in the role of a very average woman with an urge to settle the ghosts of the past. One minute she is courageous and determined, the next filled with anxiety.

There’s a lot of wry comedy in the script co-written by Coogan and Jeff Pope, with lines being delivered in a disarmingly natural manner. A film that could so easily have been delivered as a tear-jerker is kept beautifully balanced from start to finish.

Philomena
USA, rated M
98 mins
Directed by Stephen Frears; written by Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope, from a book by Martin Sixsmith; starring Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Anna Maxwell Martin, Peter Hermann

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 4 January, 2014.