The story Philomena tells is one of tragedy and heartache. Poor Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a convent girl in 1950s Ireland, meets an attractive biker stud at a carnival one night and allows him to take her virginity. She shows up in front of Mother Superior fully impregnated and crying. “Did you take your knickers off?”, Mother Superior demands. She has performed the greatest of all sins. The Holy Grail of miscalculations. Her penance: Unmedicated labour with no chance of keeping the child.
The convent sells the “illegal” kids off to rich American couples who will later do their best to brainwash them and teach them the American accent. What’s harrowing about this is that not a single nun in the abbey shows the slightest ounce of remorse, affection, or — heaven forbid — love. Philomena bawls her eyes out at the gate as she watches her son Anthony drive off around the bend. No farewells. No hugs or kisses. One of the nuns peers through the window. Her face rigid as a pole. To her, Philomena deserves nothing less.
And so the story goes. Philomena, now an old lady living with her daughter in England, decides to begin a search for Anthony. She hires the help of blacklisted journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who used to work for the BBC, but fell out of their favour after fracturing a story in Russia. One of Philomena’s little in-jokes is that Martin wants to pursue writing, and his topic of choice is Russian history.
He meets up with Philomena in a quaint little café. He jokes around. She doesn’t get his humour. He agrees to take the job, and together they travel the UK in search of clues to Anthony’s whereabouts.
Directed by Stephen Frears, the movie shifts its gears and changes its facade from time to time. Most of the time it’s funny, when it’s not dealing with the trauma of child adoption. Both Coogan and Dench share chemistry on screen. They have to, because their roles are so contradictory in nature. Sixsmith was raised Catholic. Now he doesn’t believe in God. But that’s not enough for him; he finds it necessary to reject God as well. Philomena, despite the horror of her upbringing in faith, remains a staunch Catholic. There are cherished moments in this movie where both of them engage in verbal skirmishes about the merits of faith and religion. No doubt their arguments will have resounding effects on some of the film’s viewers, and maybe that’s Coogan’s and Jeff Pope’s intent. You can see why much of the world has turned their backs on religion — the Catholic church, even to this day, has a lot to answer for. You will either walk out of this movie defending your faith or criticising its hypocrisy.
I found the Roscrea Abbey to be somewhat amusing. Yes, convents back then did commit such serious and heinous crimes against young women, but its position within the confines of Philomena seems to suggest that the nuns of the ’50s operated under orders not from God, but from the devil. They are the villains of the movie. During the climax, one of the senior nuns hardens her wrinkled face so vigorously that I was certain it would crack. It’s as if she stares with the intent to kill.
What happens to Philomena’s search, I will not say. I’ve already spoiled one review this week, and one’s enough. Needless to say, if you’re familiar with this story you’d know what’ll happen anyway. It’s all very touching and melancholy. It’s painful to know what the Church is capable of. Sure, its ways have changed over the years, but as long as that senior nun from the awful ’50s lingers around like a heavy shadow, the change will seem like it never happened.
Best Moment | The number of times Philomena puts Martin in his place.
Worst Moment | Hearing the first American speak in the movie.