The Catholic Church in Ireland is in a bad way, and to a great extent that’s it’s own fault. For all of our own concern about the sexual abuse scandal here in the United States, it’s nothing compared to the rage in Ireland over the cover-up. And that’s not the only way the church has run roughshod over the Irish people: through the middle of the twentieth century, thousands of pregnant girls were sent to convents. Their babies, if they survived, were sold to Catholic donors, the girls were pressed into indentured servitude, and the government paid the convents a stipend. Stephen Frears’ film Philomena traces the discovery of the full history of one of these women and her long-lost son.
Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) was a real Labour government advisor who got caught up in a bit of a mess and was pushed out into the general population again. Casting about for a new project, he stumbles on a woman with a story: her mother, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), recently came clean that she’d had a child as a teenager, and that the boy had been adopted away from her after a few years.
At first, Martin scorns a mere “human interest story”, but these things do sell better and faster than the Russian history books he wants to write. A little digging at the Roscrea convent turns up nothing; most of the records were destroyed “in the big fire”. At the local pub, though, a regular lets slip that this was actually a giant bonfire, intentionally covering the sisters’ tracks.
Martin also finds that most of the children were adopted by well-off Americans, but he can only get so far without Philomena being along in person. He gets the interest of a news editor who puts the two on a plane to Washington, DC to track down the story, which still has more than a few twists left before it all comes out.
Coogan and Dench are both at their best. Normally seen in more supporting roles, this is one of Coogan’s best dramatic leads, and the script he wrote with Jeff Pope has a lot to do with that. And Dench gets a real character workout, playing the working-class Irish pensioner with the perfect mixture of wide-eyed wonder and common-sense honesty.
The screenplay sets Martin’s worldly cynicism against Philomena’s simple faith without placing either one in the superior position. If it weren’t for Martin’s tricks — whatever their motive — Philomena would never have learned of her son’s fate. If it weren’t for his righteous anger, the truth would never have come to light. But it’s Philomena’s calm, generous heart that keeps Martin’s story from becoming an easily-dismissed screed, and focuses it instead on honesty and reconciliation, which cannot be so simply brushed aside. Outrage is a valid response, but an easy one; Philomena’s eventual forgiveness is harder, but it sticks to its target.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.