Philomena: a gentle film gingerly side-stepping the exploitation of young women and their children for profit

Stephen Frears, “Philomena” (2013)

A gentle film about an elderly woman searching for the son she was coerced into putting up for adoption half a century earlier, “Philomena” opts for humour and light comedy to deliver a message on the exploitation of young women and their children for profit by the Roman Catholic Church over decades. In an earlier century, the Church in Ireland established Magdalene asylums which over two centuries press-ganged thousands of young teenage girls and women into a slave force by manipulating the religious faith of a people oppressed by poverty and colonial rule, and notions of “morality”. One such unfortunate victim is Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark), motherless since childhood, who becomes pregnant by a lover and is shunted into an asylum. She gives birth to a boy, Anthony, and for a time the child grows up in a nursery attached to the asylum. One day, a rich couple arrives to adopt another child, Mary, to whom Anthony is very attached. He won’t let her go so the couple adopts both children and carry them off while Philomena, alerted by another teenage mother, runs outside crying to a gate just in time to see Anthony staring back at her while the new parents carry him away.

Nearly 50 years later, unemployed political journalist and political advisor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) has been unceremoniously and publicly retrenched from his job for and by the Blair government. Facing financial ruin, he reluctantly agrees to assist Philomena (Judi Dench) in locating the son she has always thought about since he was untimely ripped away from her. The unlikely pair travel to the asylum where Philomena and Anthony lived but their enquiries are stonewalled. A tip-off from a pub owner leads Sixsmith and Philomena on a trip to Washington DC where Sixsmith makes an astounding discovery about Philomena’s son: not only was he adopted by a wealthy American couple but he also became a lawyer and a political advisor in the US government under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush. At the same time, there is unpleasant news along with this discovery and Sixsmith and Philomena must decide whether it is worth their while to continue finding as much about her son as possible and whether he ever thought of his biological mother or tried to find her.

The film tends to tread delicately around the Magdalene asylum issue and the nuns’ cruel treatment of the girls and women under their care. Humour and a light touch leaven some of the more uncomfortable and intense aspects of the subject matter, in particular the complicity of the Roman Catholic Church as an institution and of its individual representatives in creating and maintaining suffering even beyond a character’s death. The result is a film that, while respectful of the characters and their motivations in behaving the way they do, never feels quite authentic even though it is based on reality. While Dench and Coogan are excellent in their roles, at the same time they are called on to do and say things that don’t sit well with their supposedly feisty characters. Dench zips back and forth between touchingly child-like in her religious faith and her mothering of Coogan, and Coogan moves smoothly between a cynical man-of-the-world know-all and someone who genuinely cares about seeking the truth and achieving justice: the film is as much about Sixsmith’s search for a lost self as it is about Philomena’s search for a lost son. That’s about the extent of the character development required of Dench and Coogan; fortunately the two actors put more of themselves into the characters to round them out as genuine people who are ordinary on the surface but who discover inner steel when circumstances demand.

A curious irony arises in the parallel between the lives of Philomena and Anthony aka Michael Hess: both believe fervently in the institutions that treat them badly, Philomena in the Church even though it has robbed her of her child and Michael in the US Republican Party and its ideological platform even as the party denies funding for AIDS research and treatment (in consistency with its treatment of minority groups), the shortage of which becomes his death sentence.

Another interesting theme which perhaps Frears could have made more of is the self-reflexive nature of the narrative in which Philomena and Coogan fight over whether her story should be made public or should be kept personal. Coogan obviously has a personal stake in making the story public – he may be saved from financial ruin and he has an editor breathing down his neck – and Philomena’s opinion ebbs and flows depending on her feeling about the worth of finding more about her son even after she discovers his tragedy. The film does not make too clear though why and how Sixsmith and Philomena have changes of heart near the end though by changing their minds, both characters show they have grown enormously in personal morality throughout their odyssey.

Not a bad little film but not a great one either.

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