Philomena review: suffer the women

Philomena green light Judi Dench Steve Coogan

A cry-till-you-laugh-dramedy about seeking lost family and finding new purpose; Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are fantastic. Seriously, though: bring Kleenex.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Coogan and Dench

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Oh, this is an angry-making film. This is one small true story within the inhuman real-life horror of the so-called Magdalene laundries run by the Catholic Church in Ireland, which imprisoned and enslaved teenaged girls and young women for the “crimes” of having sex, for being sexually abused or raped, or sometimes even for merely being too pretty. (Asylums for “fallen women” weren’t unique to Ireland, but Ireland turned them into brutal prisons in which women served long terms, and didn’t close the last one until 1996.) There’s little awareness of this other Church abuse scandal outside Ireland apart from the British film The Magdalene Sisters (which got only a limited release in North America in 2003), and if Philomena does nothing else but raise awareness of another institutional cruelty of the Church, it will have done an important service.

Yet this is not a work of muckraking journalism, and it’s not a movie about politics (Church or state), or “issues,” or anything bigger than getting on with life when Shit Happens. Her tenure in a Tipperary convent is all in the past for Philomena Lee (Judi Dench: Skyfall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), who doesn’t even blame the Church for locking her up and taking away the son she had out of wedlock in the 1950s. She still goes to Mass, even. But she has always wondered what became of her beautiful little Anthony after he was “adopted by” — read: sold to — a rich American couple at the age of three.

Enter British journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan [Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, Despicable Me 2], who also cowrote the script with Jeff Pope). A chance meeting with Philomena’s daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, Becoming Jane), brings them together at a time when his career is at a confusing crossroads, and he agrees to help Philomena find her stolen son, and to write about her story. Turns out she’s been trying nearly her whole life to find Anthony, only to be stonewalled by the nuns at the convent where she was imprisoned, and of course, her son’s name will have been changed by his American parents. Martin, a former BBC foreign and political correspondent (and advisor to the TV show The Thick of It! — though I don’t recall this being mentioned in the film) has far greater resources and contacts at his disposal… and he also has a very different attitude about Philomena’s predicament: he’s angry, and gets more enraged the more he digs into the situation at the convent (which is still operating as this takes place in the early 2000s, though not as a Magdalene asylum). His take is not that Shit Just Happened To Happen to Philomena, but that Shit Was Deliberately Done to her, and how can Philomena be so calm about it all? (I suspect there’s more than a hint of muckraking in the book this is based on, by the real Sixsmith.) Even Jane calls what the Church did “evil,” but Philomena won’t hear it. She just wants to know what sort of life Anthony has, whether he’s happy, and whether he ever thinks of her.

I am very much on Martin’s side in this: every new revelation about how Philomena was punished for failing to be a “good” girl is worse than the last. And though director Stephen Frears (The Deal, Dirty Pretty Things) avoids phony sentiment, the bald facts of Philomena’s story are so awful that no embellishment is needed for them to be deeply affecting. I was in tears of rage and horror through much of the film. There is nothing “institutional,” we see in flashbacks to the 1950s, in the treatment young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) receives: there is vile spite and hatred for a teenaged girl who was kept intentionally ignorant about matters of sex, as would have been “proper,” and so had no idea she might get pregnant when she did that with a nice boy who showed her some affection, and she was punished in the most horrific way for it anyway. Even the one “nice” nun, who sneaks Philomena a photo of Anthony — a big no-no — is still nothing more than a less-than-abusive prison guard. The worst of the nuns makes it perfectly plain, if indirectly, that this job required women who hated their own womanhood to be the jailers and the punishers of the “fallen” girls.

What the Church did to women like Philomena Lee is disgusting and unforgivable, and I wish I believed in hell so I could think the people responsible are burning there.

Given what is depicted in Philomena and how angry it makes me, it’s remarkable how funny the film is, and how much it made me laugh. This could be the first cry-until-you-laugh dramedy I’ve ever seen. Frears finds a lot of odd yet wonderful poignancy in the clash of Philomena’s forgiveness of all the sadness that has been thrust upon her and Martin’s fury at her story and the organized injustice that caused it is: both options come across as less than may be needed but already more than anyone should have to give. Dench and Coogan are wholly engaging as a sort of mismatched-buddy duo, and most affecting of all in their joint performance is how they find what’s positive and life-affirming amidst all the cruel and completely avoidable tragedy.

viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

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