This review makes certain plot details of the true story upon which the film is based explicit
Anyone who knows the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries will be dubious of a film based on one woman’s tale, which claims to be both ‘moving’ and ‘funny’. The Magdalene Laundries has already inspired a film by Peter Mullun, The Magdalene Sisters (2002) and a song by Joni Mitchell, which are both distressing and melancholy in tone. Admittedly, it is hard to believe that any film based around these kinds of circumstances could possibly be comical, but this is where Philomena comes into its own.
The film, based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, follows Philomena (Judi Dench) fifty years on from the birth of her illegitimate son, which is experienced in a series of hazy flashbacks of her as a young catholic girl living in County Tipperary, Ireland. Blissfully unaware of the dangers of an unprotected ‘roll in the hay’ with a local boy, she finds herself pregnant and shunned by her family to Roscrea Convent for the Sacred Heart. Here, she gives birth to a son, by breach birth, which of course, she receives no painkillers for, as it is ‘penance’ for the ‘carnal urges’ she submitted to when she conceived the child. The now 70-year-old Philomena is searching for her son Anthony, who was sold by the sisters at Roscrea to a rich American family for £1000, along with hundreds of other children. But after signing a contract as a teen that she would never attempt to reunite with her son, Philomena’s adult daughter enlists the help of Martin Sixsmith, (Coogan) the cynical journalist and ex- spin-doctor of Tony Blair’s government, to assist her mother in finding Anthony.
The casting of Judi Dench as the title role, and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, is nothing short of genius. The two provide the best of odd couple comedy- Coogan describes Philomena as being; ‘evidence of what years of the Daily Mail and Readers Digest can do to a person’ whilst Philomena in turn dismisses his education at ‘Oxbridge’, (not stopping short to realise that Oxford and Cambridge are two separate institutions) and shuns his evident and complex cynicism towards the Catholic church with her simple and serene faith. Although Dench is often cast in strong, cool, matriarchal roles you cannot help but be charmed by her realistic and endearing portrayal of a kind-hearted Irish catholic woman. Quite frankly, it’s impossible not to fall under her spell. In Philomena, Dench is not cold and cool but soulful and warm; her wrinkles seem deeper set than previous roles but this only adds more to her charm, the sparkle in her eye captures not only the trauma of the exhausting hunt for her lost son but her everlasting optimism to find him.
Whilst in Washington it’s revealed to the pair by a colleague of Anthony’s, that he was in fact, gay. Martin is noticeably panicked about the effect this will have on Philomena as he anxiously searches her face for some sign of a reaction to this news. She smiles and admits in a heartwarmingly upbeat and blasé tone, that she had an inkling Antony was gay as a toddler and seeing pictures that day of him in dungarees had ‘left her with no doubt in her mind’ that she was right. It is this – Dench’s silently moving and powerful portrayal of a mother’s love- that makes this film a timeless masterpiece of rare brilliance.
Philomena’s major theme is forgiveness, and it’s its most powerful force. You could hear an audible sigh of relief when Martin finally articulates to Sister Hildegard exactly what he thinks of their treatment of the young girls, but almost simultaneously, Philomena tells the same sister that she forgives the sisters because ‘she doesn’t want to be angry’. Philomena positively radiates with all things good she has taken from her faith, leaving the tragedy of Roscrea behind her. Her faith is not blind like Martin would like to have her believe, but instead, is the one thing that allows her to finally be at peace.
Philomema doesn’t try to preach, nor is it patronizing in tone, as could be expected of a film dealing with such issues as this. Instead, the power of a mother’s love for her son resonates and clings to you long after you leave the screening. The film is genius; not only in its form but in what it conveys of one woman’s strength of character and undeterred faith. Philomena is moving and funny, yes. But rarely, and most notably, it’s human.
Philomena (2013), directed by Stephen Frears, is distributed in the UK by Twentieth Century Fox, Certificate PG 13