dir: Stephen Frears
Look, I admit that a film about a woman in her 70s - 80s trying to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years ago doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs.
It sounds like a barrel of misery, in fact, filled up to the brim with bitterness and spite.
Philomena is based on a true story, however, and the fascinating aspects about it, and the parts of the flick that are the most enjoyable, don't really have to do with that singular act of Irish Catholic bastardry.
Philomena (Dame Judi Dench) is a lovely old woman who remembers, quite clearly, quite painfully, that when she was fairly young she committed the mortal sin of getting knocked up. For her crimes she was imprisoned by nuns for four years, and, to add brutal insult to agonising injury, the child fruit of her evil was whisked away by these penguins and sold to Americans for a hefty chunk of change.
They took the boy away and just gave him over, specifically without telling her.
They didn't and wouldn't tell her where he went, or give her any information, even decades later, as to where he ended up, with whom and where. Fifty years later the lies continue.
Who the hell do these goddamn nuns think they are? Who gave these awful cretins the power to ruin the lives of women who were already having a fairly hard time as it was? The Church alone couldn't have been granted magic powers to keep women in captivity just for having kids out of wedlock, could they? I mean, I realise their entire fantasy structure of the universe is based on backwards superstitions and rococo sophistry, but none of that stuff grants them actual powers in the real world unless a government or two goes along with their play-acting.
And I find it staggering that even the bullshit Irish government would allow this medieval stuff to have persisted even into the last century.
If it hadn't, I guess this story as depicted here would never have transpired, and Philomena Lee would have had her son, would have watched him grow into an unemployed and violent drunk who eventually becomes the lead singer of The Commitments, and it would have been a significantly different story.
It's unfair, as well, to blame only the Irish or the Catholics for this, because the staggering and galling fact is that these places, these Magdalene "asylums", laundry prisons started in England, and were opened in plenty of places other than Ireland.
Including six of them in Australia.
What was this crap, other than institutionalised terror of women's sexuality? First they claimed to be supporting "fallen" women, but these places were catch-alls for any woman someone had a problem with, whether she was a working girl, whether she'd been raped, whether she actually enjoyed sex, or whether she turned your down telegraph Morse Code friend request on Ye Olde Facebooke.
All incarcerated with their father's signature.
Philomena is one of tens of thousands of Irish strumpets that this happened to. Most of our time with her, though, is focussed not on what happened to her, or the girls / women around her, but on her search. She enlists the aid of a fallen journalist called Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who is in something of a crisis himself, personally and professionally.
Coogan also wrote the screenplay, and must have loved the book this is based on, so we can assume this character is exactly as he wants it to be. As such, it's interesting that he is, in some ways, the "villain" in the story apart from the nuns. His interest in Philomena's story, which he disdainfully refers to as a "human interest" story, his features colouring with disgust when he says it, is purely mercenary. He and his editor (Michelle Fairley, better known as Catelyn Stark from Game of Thrones) plot the likely results of the story without caring one whit what impact it has on Philomena herself. In all his dealings with her, Sixsmith comes across as snooty and patrician, lofty and full of his own smug sense of self, and Philomena is like the cleaning lady having the audacity to express opinions and have thoughts of her own and stuff.
And of what he thinks of Philomena herself, Sixsmith seems to be barely concealing the scorn he has for her. Dame Judi plays the role with the usually ease that she plays any role, but this character also has a great deal of pathos, of feeling for others as well as herself, and she plays all this without straining, as she's been doing for decades.
Her depiction of Philomena is... interesting to say the least. She swings from simple to worldly sometimes within the same scene, and they trade a few times on the idea of an older woman shocking those younger than her by showing familiarity with something they assume she'd know nothing about. Although she became a nurse, got married and had a family, she shows an almost child-like wonderment in the world around her.
Having known a few nurses, and plenty of mothers, I find this part... hard, to believe. Nurses are the least naive, least prone to 'child-like wonderment' people I've ever met on this planet, but whatever.
Their enquiries at the convent net no results, net them nothing other than nuns judging them for not being lilly-white members of the flock. The strangest thing, though, is that despite her ill-treatment at the hands of that shitty church and those shittier nuns, she's still a staunch follower of the pope-worshipping Church.
Imagine - worshipping the Church that took away your autonomy, your dignity, your child and your self-worth and then blamed you for the treatment they inflicted upon you! Philomena's faith is obviously made of sterner stuff than mine, because it never causes her to waver.
As such, yes, she's a fairly noble, saintly figure, but she's counterbalanced by the world-weary cynicism that Sixsmith doles out. He doesn't just deliver it, he embodies and exudes it.
Sixsmith figures out that the boy was probably sold to an American couple, and as such they have to take their road movie into the skies and onto American roads. Philomena is of course fascinated by the friendly Americans and America itself (constantly lamenting their portion sizes), as Sixsmith is irritated by almost everything she does.
One of my favourite moments involves Phil & Six (which should be their nicknames and also the title of the detective tv show they should create for these two lovely actors/characters; Solving Crimes and Fighting Nuns) visiting the Lincoln monument, where Sixsmith intones drily and drearily "he was one of their greatest presidents". To that Philomena naturally has to say "of course he was, look at the size of him!" as if the statue were constructed to scale.
I won't go into what they discover about her abducted son's life, but suffice to say it surprised even me. That this is a true story is what makes it most fascinating. If this were a fiction cut from whole cloth, it would be branded anti-Catholic, anti-right wing-conservative propaganda, but the fact that it's actually true is truly fascinating stuff. It also implies that maybe reality has something of an anti-Catholic, anti-right wing-conservative bias.
The story comes full circle in a disturbing way, giving closure to an element of the story by allowing the horrible people who tormented Philomena one last dig at her expense, blaming her yet again for how she was treated, but Philomena is too decent a person, too good a Christian to hold a grudge most of us would argue she's very justified in holding. Sixsmith himself tries to use this opportunity to get satisfaction out of these evil penguins, but Philomena is better equipped for this world than he'll ever be, at least as it relates to matters of grace and forgiveness.
It's a credit to the screenplay that they never go out of their way to soften the meanness, the selfishness of the Sixsmith character, that they don't try to redeem him in false or unfeeling ways. He remains who he is, and his penance, his redemption, is through telling Philomena's story for all the world to see, as honestly as we can, so we can judge for ourselves.
Stephen Frears has been making wonderful films for decades, and this is no less well made than anything else he's ever done. I mean, this isn't Dangerous Liasons, but then what is? He's never going to get credit at awards time for this, but it's a quietly competent endeavour well realised and perfectly in synch with the material.
I enjoyed this a lot. It's not a barnstorming Rage Against the Church flick like it should be, with burning nuns and holy hand grenades like it's desperately crying out for, but it'll do, all the same.
8 times Catholics have a bloody lot to answer for out of 10
"The Lord Jesus Christ will be my judge - not the likes of you."
- "Really? Because I think if Jesus were here right now he'd tip you out of that fucking wheelchair - and you wouldn't get up and walk." - strikes me as a very bloody likely scenario - Philomena