Philomena (2013, Stephen Frears)
For a movie that deals in such a towering stack of unpleasant human emotions, indeed that neatly conflates its tragedies with the universal disappointment of the everyday, Philomena is oddly frothy. Though mistaken for a comedy in some quarters, probably thanks to Steve Coogan’s cockeyed mug on the poster, it includes any number of story points and sequences that amount to large-scale evocations of trauma, yet it never quite loses its grip on a kind of easy friendliness. It’s one of the darkest films in recent memory that can still be justifiably called a crowd-pleaser — to its credit, one that doesn’t bristle at exploring the inner life, including the sexual past, of a woman in her seventies.
That woman is the real-life Philomena Lee, here played with a touch of inevitability by Judi Dench, who meets smugness and dottiness halfway in a performance that, while charming, sometimes verges on irksome condescension. As a teenager, Philomena experienced a tryst outside of a fairground (evidently not an uncommon experience in the ’50s in the UK; Ringo Starr lost his virginity under the same circumstances — thanks Mark Lewisohn!). Pregnant and alone, her asshole father sent her to cope with Kyle Smith’s best friends at the Irish nunnery Sean Ross Abbey. She had a little boy who was taken away from her; shamed into silence, she never investigated until decades later, which is where Coogan’s reporter, the BBC’s Martin Sixsmith, comes into the picture. He’s roped somewhat reluctantly into covering Lee’s plight as a human interest story, only to discover two bizarre elements that make it something (not to sound cynical) of a journo’s dream: there was a Catholic conspiracy to conceal Philomena’s identity from her son when he came looking in the ’90s, and that very son was a major U.S. Republican party advisor who worked in the Reagan and Bush administrations at the height of AIDS-era homophobia. He was a gay man himself, and the disease killed him long before Lee discovered his identity.
How interested one is in the film Philomena depends not so much on your admiration for the people involved as in whether or not you’ll find it relevant to your own life, in which case it can prove harrowing. If you or a family member were adopted or if you’ve struggled with anything like a tremendous family or personal secret, it could shake you to the core in the same way Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell may have, with an equally light and humane touch. Most of us with adoptions in our families are very familiar with the struggle of discovering one’s true parentage, which is touched on here, but it’s an intriguing twist to see a film revolving around a woman’s search for her child — a search whose sad conclusions have already been reached, of course, before the film begins. (The immense pain of a mutual longing being denied, as it is in the narrative, is something the film is amiable enough not to dwell on, but it weighs you down after the credits if you’re familiar with similar struggles.)
Much of the narrative nevertheless follows this search far and wide, and it’s an enormous boon not just that the central revelation of the son’s identity — he became Michael Hess — comes roughly halfway through the picture but that we’ve progressed sufficiently that, a couple of dumb jokes aside, his sexuality is only an incidental concern. Coogan also wrote the script with Jeff Pope, and the two of them are relatively faithful to the events depicted until near the end, when they take a few extra jabs at making the nuns wandering wordlessly about the convent look just a little more evil, with Coogan providing himself with an extra bit of f-word catharsis for the audience. For those who aren’t huge fans of the Catholic Church (or churches in general), it’s kind of annoying that the film seems to believe it has to make stuff up in order to stack the decks against the Church more so than the compelling story already would anyway. That’s like Frost/Nixon giving Nixon extra nutty things to say as though he didn’t already have plenty of whoppers in the repertoire. Plus, Coogan’s showy flameout is a pandering moment that gives the illusion of a climax — of a story being neatly wrapped — providing a careful feeling of release without actually solving anything for its central character except the still-in-progress decision to let her story be known far and wide. At least we can sense some palpable relief when Lee is permitted to see footage of her son, albeit near death, living out his days happily with his partner.
In a lot of ways, Philomena hits the mark without much trouble because so many of its targets are easy ones. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a wholly successful and richly entertaining movie. In a similar vein, Coogan and Dench could play these roles in their sleep, and some of the script’s sitcommy stuff is eyeroll-worthy, but the material is so fascinating it’d be hard to mess it up too much — and the actors are aware of their charm, so that nothing they do derails the film as a whole. Luckily, for the most part the investigative and human elements both come through strongly. (The two characters’ emotional cycles don’t seem wholly resolved, but maybe that’s the idea.)
The one big caveat with just declaring this a passable, informative piece of gentle Oscar campaigning and moving on is that a couple of times, director Stephen Frears lets the polite curtain fall and shows us something extraordinary. The early flashbacks to Lee’s adolescent sexual liaison — coupled with the film’s highly pointed refusal to demonize such behavior — and the terrifying later sequences from the convent in the 1951-53 period betray more imagination than the rest of the picture by a longshot. Sophie Kennedy Clark’s performance as Philomena Lee in her teens is indeed stronger, more vital, more heartbreaking than Dench’s perfectly acceptable work. For all the talk of anti-Catholicism, what comes through is an impassioned protest against general widespread negativity toward sexuality, especially teenage sexuality, especially teen girl sexuality, especially that which results in accidental pregnancy; all that is, if anything, equally relevant now. Frears does a good job of conveying, against all such dross, the life-affirming humanity of a fling, well-advised or not.
Strict adherence to real life or to a somewhat carefully-treading-all-viewpoints script circumvents Frears from really harnessing what could’ve been the strongest analogy of the picture, that of the probable agony of spending the ’80s as a closeted Republican with the similar torture of the secret Philomena keeps on down through the decades. Shame against shame. All are to be commended, meanwhile, for the absence of some sort of forced pseudo-reunion or impossible (ranting aside) resolution. The despairing conclusions of the story are made only slightly less troubling and blunt by the light joke at the finale. There may even be too many light jokes, about dime romance novels and how silly old people are, but you sense that they’re acting as something like a salve. As ever, Frears is such a strong workhorse director, and this is solid work. But imagine how even better it could be if he’d approached this like he did, for instance, The Snapper and made it more about people than ideas and conflicting philosophies. All the same, the injustice at the core of Philomena will boil your blood if you’ve got any.