Spoiler Warning: This film is inspired by a true story, so many viewers will already know the outcome. The reviewer has attempted to avoid explicit plot spoilers, but just discussing the film's themes means you may guess at plot twists.
Philomena is based on Martin Sixsmith's book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Steve Coogan plays Sixsmith, who is smarting as the film begins. He recently lost a prestigious journalism job, and believes his firing was unfair and unwarranted. But no matter where he goes, nobody appears to be interested in his side of the story.
Philomena Lee (Dench) is in a similar situation. When she was nineteen, she was forced into indentured servitude to pay for the shelter and care that the Irish nuns provided her, and now, fifty years later, she is haunted by curiosity about the son who was taken from her. Philomena has contacted the orphanage she worked in several times, but all she know is that all records have been lost. They reminded her that she signed a document surrendering parental rights and promising not to attempt to contact her child.
So Sixsmith agrees to use his reporter skills to help Philomena locate her son. In return, he'll get access and the right to publish the human interest story he believes could get his career back on track.
This is an actor's piece, and both leads are tremendous. There's probably not an adjective in the thesaurus that hasn't been deservedly laid at Dench's feet, and Coogan is right there with her in what is arguably a more difficult—certainly a more unlikeable—role. Philomena rambles cheerfully about romance novels and is enthralled by cable-access movies in upscale hotel rooms. Sixsmith is disdainful of her provincialism and moral naiveté but disarmed by her completely sincere frankness. Their interactions are what makes the film enjoyable.
But though it's successful as entertainment, whether Philomena inspires or challenges as a work of art depends on how the viewer interprets the film's message about religion. Philomena may be forced to reevaluate her relationship to the church as the truth about her son is revealed. And Sixsmith, as the audience surrogate, is the judge. Given what she has learned about the church, how can Philomena still hold fast to its teachings?
Philomena is asking herself these questions, even before the film's climax. In one key scene, Philomena attends confession, but cannot go through the motions of the routine, which has been drilled into her since childhood. But later, after she confronts an elderly nun, Sixsmith accuses Philomena of inauthenticity, of going through the motions and saying the rote words of forgiveness rather than letting out all the hate and bitterness he assumes she must be harboring.
Sixsmith is scandalized that she or anyone could think that huge wrongs could be dismissed as easily as saying a few words. Philomena replies archly, "You think that was easy?"
I thought Philomena was about Philomena. As such, I thought the ending sublime. But others may have reservations on two fronts. First, Sixsmith, while professing atheism (or at least being strongly anti-church), is not presented as a monster. The film gives plenty of ammunition to anyone who wants to argue that the church tends to hurt more than it helps. (That's an argument that depends on how we measure what's inherently unquantifiable.) But while Sixsmith may be wrong about God, he's not wrong about everything, and even Philomena recognizes on some levels that she is using him just as much as he is trying to use her. He will do things that she will not, but she wouldn't have gotten to the truth without his willingness to challenge the authority of the church.
Some may also find it troubling that while the film champions faith, it can be read as the faith of the individual, not the faith of the institution. I wonder how much modern (by which I mean post-Romantic) audiences are aware of how much we, on the whole, tend to distrust institutions, and how much that shades how we represent faith. And it's possible to read Philomena as saying that religion is in the orphanage, in the sisterhood, in the institution. Then we see Philomena's deep moralism as the opposite of that "faith," rather than its embodiment.
When I was contemplating Philomena, I too thought about its relationship to faith that way, but rejected it, for two reasons. First: director Stephen Frears's films are almost always about people who long for authenticity while struggling against ideological, social, or political constraints. Frears (allow me to go ahead and say it) is perhaps the most undervalued director working today. Dangerous Liaisons, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Queen, Chéri, Tamara Drewe—all of his films aren't just consistently excellent; they also grapple with how difficult it is to experience the gap between how we think the world should operate, and how it actually does.
So putting Philomena in this context, it is hard to see Philomena as a triumphant expatriate of the faith. It makes more sense to see her as one more wounded hero, struggling with existential depression and finding a way to soldier on. And in this case, her way is by clinging to religion.
But Philomena is also Roman Catholic through and through. Some Protestant viewers will want her to reject the church—especially those who have culturally bought into the idea that authentic, individual faith is the opposite of corporate, institutional religion. And in the hands of a lesser artist, I think Philomena would embody that conflict. The movie would let us voice our doubts and critiques while still distancing ourselves from them (since they apply to evil Catholics, not us).
But Philomena does not look at the hateful nun and say, "That is Catholicsm, and I want none of it." Instead, in her words and deeds, she enacts her Catholic teaching. If the church has injured her (and raise your hand if you are Protestant and have never been injured by a church, congregation, or denomination), it has also given her a precious gift. It has taught her to know what do with the injury, how to respond to it, and how to be empathetic in her suffering, not hateful.
Philomena ends with a gesture from Sixsmith that could be construed as cynical. I think it's meant to be kind. He has not reconciled himself to the church or even to God, but he has reconciled himself to Philomena. Part of what makes symbols so dangerous is that they can be appropriated. For most of the film, the Catholic symbols—rosaries, statues, candles—and the rituals in which they are used bring up only negative associations for Sixsmith. By the end, they've taken on another negative association—but, perhaps for the first time, they have a positive one as well, because of Philomena.
Once a year or so, there seems to be a conflict between a studio and the MPAA over ratings. Philomena is listed as PG-13 for language, and that feels right to me. (There were some rumblings that the film might, like The King's Speech, be assigned an R for language alone.) There will be some who object that the context of the language makes it less problematic than in other, similarly rated films. I sympathize with that argument as well as with the larger concern about ratings that editors can avoid the key words and earn a lower rating even though the overall tone of a film is more violent, nasty, crude, or crass. The fact remains, however, that profane, obscene, or suggestive language is something about which different viewers have different thresholds of tolerance. I would be comfortable with young teens seeing the film. Those under thirteen have probably heard worse, but they may also be bored by the pace. In addition, there is a scene of childbirth that might be disturbing to some younger viewers as well as some frank, though not crude, discussions of alternative sexual preferences.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.
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