Let’s imagine for a moment that you don’t care about movies that cost $200 million bucks to make and needs to earn a billion to be considered successful. Apart from upsetting the forces of capitalism, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and probably the NSA, this could mean you’re someone who prefers a small story to a sprawling epic; a person who enjoys a character-driven tale rather than one involving orcs, swordplay and normal-sized actors pretending to be much tinier than they actually are. So if THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG doesn’t sound like your cup of Boxing Day mead, then perhaps you would consider watching PHILOMENA instead.
PHILOMENA is based on the 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee written by Martin Sixsmith. The book is based on the true story of an unmarried teenage mother in Ireland in the 1950s. The attitude towards her and other young women who gave birth out of wedlock was harsh and unforgiving. Philomena Lee was sent to the convent at Roscrea where she and other unmarried mothers had to work to pay off their debt to the church. Philomena gives birth to her son, Anthony and raises him at the convent until he turns three when she is forced to adopt him to an American family.
The film tells of author Martin Sixsmith hearing this story from Lee’s daughter. He is at a low ebb in his own life. As the movie opens, the veteran BBC journalist has just been fired from a lucrative job as a government advisor. He needs to write something to get the cash flowing, but has no ideas. He toys with starting a history novel. Sixsmith sees himself as someone who writes politics and current affairs and sees stories like Philomena Lee’s as human interest and somewhat beneath him. Nonetheless, he begins investigating the matter and soon discovers the adoption of Anthony and other children at the convent was anything but straightforward.
PHILOMENA is the work of some well-credentialed British talent. It is directed by Stephen Frears (THE QUEEN, HIGH FIDELITY). His work here is quiet and masterful. The screenplay was co-written by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan. Pope is a BAFTA award winning television screenwriter and Steve Coogan is of course the multi-tasking co-star of the movie. Coogan is rightly seen as an icon among the comedy cognoscenti, however in choosing to play Martin Sixsmith he has given himself a rather more difficult role than usual, that of the observer. We are not allowed to forget that Sixsmith has an editor, a deadline and a commercial concern with the outcome of this major incident in Philomena’s life.
There is comedy in the cynical journalist teaming up with the optimistic old Irish lady and Coogan and Dench play it beautifully. It is the perfect balance to the more serious side of the movie. Philomena Lee’s determination to track down her son after fifty years is motivated by a deep sense of loss she can no longer carry. Dench gives Lee a toughness and vulnerability that is utterly believable. Martin is an atheist and Philomena is a devout Catholic, so their journey together is marked with religious disagreements and, as in all British cinema, misunderstandings about class.
At base, the story is about the real life intransigence of the Catholic Church in Ireland when faced with their uncaring treatment of unfortunate young women. It’s about the institutional abuse of power. Some apologists have taken exception to the dramatisation of this story, however Philomena Lee fought hard to uncover the truth about her son and to have her voice heard. This movie is a powerful and unusually entertaining version of her story.
PHILOMENA runs for 98 minutes. I rated it 8/10.