Philomena (2013) – Stephen Frears

The world needs more people like Philomena Lee. This is a woman of goodness, a woman who can see past the petty to the important, a woman of forgiveness. And the world needs more movies like Philomena(2013), which is sweet and sad, simple but warm and wonderful. It tells the story of a woman who was denied a lot of happiness in her life and reacts to that by making more. She is good, which is its own reward, and so is the movie, which is ours.

The story begins with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a journalist who was recently fired as communications director for the government when an embarrassing and insensitive email of his was leaked and he was publicly resigned. His doctor says that he’s in physically fine shape but that he should try running to help with stress. “I’m also thinking of writing a book about Russian history,” Martin offers. The doctor insists on running.

Martin is approached by a caterer at a party who says she has a good story for him, a story about her mother, who was separated from her first child decades ago by the hard-edged nuns who raised her, and her mother’s desire to track her son down. Martin reacts poorly: He’s a journalist, he’s worked for the BBC, he doesn’t do human interest stories, they’re beneath him. Later, he reconsiders and decides to meet the subject of the potential story. That would be Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) who, woefully unarmed with any kind of sexual knowledge, was taken advantage of by a boy at a county fair, impregnated and cast out of her house to live in Roscrea Convent, a Dickensian cruel workhouse run by narrow-eyed jailor nuns who remind Philomena that the pain of childbirth is the repercussion for her sin of out-of-wedlock sex. Her son was taken from her around the age of four and sold to adoptive parents, records of which, the convent tells Philomena, were destroyed in a fire. Philomena has every right to be bitter; she was shamed and abandoned for doing something she enjoyed then was ripped away from the only real good to come out of the affair without warning or reason. Philomena, however, has forgone that right. When Martin meets Philomena for the first time and asks about the convent, she says, “Many of the nuns were very nice.” She’s even still Catholic, attending mass regularly and holding a tremendous amount of faith. Martin, agnostic, finds her quaint and a little simple, but he needs a story and this one will do.

When they visit the convent, he becomes engaged. The nuns don’t seem as stern now, but they have no interest in talking to Martin and, while they can’t produce a single document on where Philomena’s son might be, they are able to find the document Philomena signed all those years ago recusing herself from control of her son. This makes Martin righteously angry and he wants to get to the bottom of it. Through some of his connections in America, he finds a large number of adoptions from the part of the world where Philomena lost her son, but the details he needs can only be asked for by her so off they go to the USA.

Traveling with Philomena is a different sort than Martin is used to. Because of her replaced hip (“It’s titanium, so it won’t rust,” she happily tells him), Philomena and Martin are treated to one of the service carts at the airport, a perk that makes Philomena feel “just like the Pope.” She’s also amazed by the free booze in business class. She asks him what he’s reading. It’s a serious journal about Russian history that she probably won’t understand so he gives her the minimum response. “There’s some horse trading in it,” he offers. “Oh, mine’s about horses too,” she perks up and proceeds to tell him all about the trashy romance she just finished, amazed that the potential duke chose the stable maid over the duchess. “You can read it if you’d like,” she says, shoving the book in his hands. Martin, visibly unmoved by the description, sardonically observes the back cover. “Oh, look, there’s a whole series.”

Once in Washington, Martin goes about trying to uncover her son while Philomena compliments the hotel staff and considers watching Big Momma’s House (2000) on pay-per-view over visiting the Lincoln Memorial (they do go see Lincoln who is, as always in the movies but never in real life, alone in an empty memorial). Her good humor and unbending sweetness begin to wear Martin down, even if he can’t keep his cynicism completely in check. (“She told four people today that they were ‘One in a million,’ he tells his wife over the phone. “What do you suppose are the chances of that?”) Eventually, they find the identity of her lost child and that comes with a number of surprises. First, he was the top legal aide to both Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. Second, he died in the mid-’90s.

Last, he was gay, although the last one wasn’t really a surprise to Philomena. When she’s told of her son’s homosexuality, Martin checks her face to see a trace of shock or disgust or anything. She doesn’t move. When she asks if her son had any children, Martin fears she hasn’t understood. He tries to explain, “Oh, I’d always known he was gay,” she says. “I was wondering if he were bisexual and had children with a woman somewhere. I knew someone who was bisexual, poor boy couldn’t make up his mind.” If it seems as if her son’s homosexuality would be incongruous with her strong Catholicism, I imagine it wouldn’t be much different than her son’s homosexuality and his affiliation and devotion to the Republican Party, which he served at a time when it was actively turning its back on his community and issues, specifically AIDS, which killed him. It’s not a disconnect; it’s a belief the institutions have more important aims.

Throughout this process, and its resolution, Philomena reveals herself as a thoughtful, estimable person. Martin’s first impression of her as a doddering little eccentric is just her pleasant demeanor. She’s unassuming and kind, but she has a rich understanding of human nature; she just doesn’t let that understanding discourage her. Before she finds out anything about her son, she wonders if he made anything of himself—was he a prince or a pauper? When she finds he was taken to America, she worries that he might have grown overweight (“because of the portion sizes”). When she sees how her son lived, she remarks, with equal parts joy and sadness, that she could never have provided him with what he had. Dench gives a small performance of big impact; she never overdoes it or shows off. She’s just a woman who has seen enough anger to know not to pass it along.

Director Stephen Frears has a similar handle on the storytelling, taking what could have felt like formulaic sentimental mush and, by leaving Dench and Coogan largely alone to generate emotion and never pushing the pedal on gushy corn, creating something genuine, something worth getting invested in, something positive. The movie isn’t anti-Catholic or anti-Republican; it’s simply pro-humanity. To watch Philomena wash away years of anger and bitterness in Martin’s life when he hasn’t suffered nearly the way she has, is inspiring and humbling. Philomena is a wonderful, moving film for adults that is considerate and funny and asks us to be a little better than we were 95 minutes before. 

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