Philomena is a film adaptation of a book by Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan in the movie) narrating the story of Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), an Irish woman who got pregnant, was disowned by her family and ended up in a convent, where she had to work (seven days a week in the hardest taks) for 4 years (for the privilege of seeing her child an hour per day), and had her son adopted. Now (2002) that he would have been fifty she tells the story to her daughter, who tells Martin (who has been ‘resigned’ from his post as a spin doctor, after years as a political journalist and correspondent for the BBC). He is initially dismissive of the ‘personal interest’ story that he sees as well below his talents (he insists on writing a book of Russian history that nobody shows any interest on), but eventually takes it on.
Although I have not read the book, Steve Coogan who’s also written the screenplay, has made an excellent job of both, narrating the journey of the two characters, and also making their interaction and relationship the winning element of the story.
The background of the story (a true story) has been told before, and it is terrible (The Magdalene Sisters). How any religious creed could be used to imprison, and separate mothers from their children, is difficult to believe. And when you get to know that they even charged for the adoptions, it’s the last straw. Sister Hildegard’s character in the film is a true embodiment of the worst of religion, and the fact that Philomena can be gracious with her only makes her more of an exemplary and sympathetic character.
What Philomena does differently is show the ambivalence and the doubts of this woman, who is still religious, who remains devoted to her Roman Catholic faith, and who continually subverts the expectations of Martin, who sees her as an old woman of little understanding or subtlety, whilst by the end we get to appreciate her resilience, non-judgemental attitude and generosity. And like in all best relationships, they are both changed for the better by getting to know each other.
Is it a sad movie? Well, the story is sad, the background story is appalling and outrageous (and indeed something should be done to help these mothers find their children), but the balance between sad and funny moments, the beautiful interaction between the characters, and the personality and attitude of Philomena makes it inspiring and upbeat.
I love Judi Dench and she is perfect and as generous a performer as she always is. As much as I love my mother I would happily adopt her character as mother too. Steve Coogan demonstrates that he can carry a serious part more than competently, and his writing is superb. One also gets the sense that making the film must have been a joy.
Of course Stephen Frears is a great director and he serves the story without embellishments or unnecessary stylistic flourishes.
I thoroughly recommend Philomena. It will make you reflect, look at your family in a different way, and will warm the cockles of your heart.
And if you want more stories of unfair adoptions and uprooting, I would recommend Oranges and Sunshine and Rabbit-Proof Fence.
Thank you for reading, and if you have enjoyed it, please remember to like, comment and share. And go and watch the movie!
- Philomena is a heartbreaking masterpiece, with Judi Dench and Steve Coogan on top form (metro.co.uk)
- ‘Philomena’ Review (sroutledge.wordpress.com)
- Steve Coogan and Philomena Lee on “Philomena” (wnyc.org)
- Judi Dench urged to back inquiry into stolen baby’ scandal (theguardian.com)
- Philomena: behind the scenes with Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (telegraph.co.uk)
- Philomena, The Review: Frears, Dench & Coogan Take Us On An Emotional Journey (nerdlikeyou.com)