“PHILOMENA” IS AN intelligent, engaging and (though I hate this word), heartwarming drama about the (true) story of a disgraced British spin-doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, “What Maisie Knew”) who, somewhat reluctantly agrees to pursue a story of one Philomena Lee (Judi Dench, as compelling as usual). The four-year old son of this elderly Irish woman had been stolen from her and sold to some Americans fifty years before by the nuns in whose convent she, as an unwed mother, had been living. It’s the story ostensibly about the search for the son; but really it’s a story about the triumph of decency, honesty and the truth over secrecy and lies.
For fifty years, Philomena, inhibited by a deep sense of shame, both for having sex (sex before marriage is in Catholic eschatology well nigh a mortal sin, not unlike murder) and (horrors!) for enjoying it. Her rediscovery of an old photo of her son triggers an epiphany to find him and forces her closed memories to re-open. We’re cast back to the time when, at about sixteen, pregnant and outcast, she turns to her local convent. There, she buys their protection in exchange for her freedom and her rights over her child. Hers becomes a life of servitude, sweating six days a week in their laundry. The convent is a place framed by a cemetery of buried teenage mothers, some named, others simply the results of births gone bad.
To the nuns there, the sadistic suffering Philomena had to undergo giving birth to her son, and her subsequent rigid life in the convent are the price she must pay for her sins. Her one joy is the hour a week she’s allowed to play with her son, a sweet, smiling child deeply attached to another waif – a girl – in the institution. The moment of crisis, the horror she buries deep into her subconscious, and which finally surfaces, is when both her little boy and the little girl are handed over one day to strangers in a large, expensive limousine.
The search for the boy leads Sixsmith and Philomena initially to the convent. In this world of pleasant smiles, crumpets and tea and deceptions, the governing abbess claims to have no knowledge of the past, all records having been destroyed in a mysterious fire. The search leads them to the US and the back to the convent where mysteriously the only document saved from the fire is Philomena’s signed permission to agree to the adoption of her son.
The relationship between this unlikely pair – the urbane, ironic, intellectual and cynical Sixsmith and his opposite number, Philomena, who is straightforward, gauche, honest and uncynically faithful – is the heart of the movie. It is his journalistic nous that drives the search forward and it is her open honesty that cracks open the door that completes the search. It is a search that not only leads to the truth about her son, but also to her higher truth – that the Catholic view of herself (as epitomized by one tight-lipped bitter crone of a nun extolling the need for mortification of the flesh as the route to God) is distorted, unchristian and untrue.
Her growing understanding of the truth about what happened with her son is tied in with her slow acceptance of the truth of the convent – as a place where lies, dissimulations and deceptions are its dark protection from the glare of outside scrutiny.
“Philomena” offers us three worlds: the big city cynicism of Sixsmith (and his driven editor, Sally – Michelle Fairley who most people will know as Catelyn Stark from “Game of Thrones”), the self-centered hypocrisy of the church and the forgiving, country-girl, open-ness of Philomena. We get the sense that he has grown and is a better person due to her generosity of spirit (the county has conquered the town), whereas, the church remains closed and shut in by its sense of stern, unforgiving judgment.
Director Stephen Frears (the disappointing “Tamara Drewe” and the outstanding “The Queen” and “Dirty Pretty Things”) finds a nice balance between the dark, horrifying reality of her story – her abuse by the church’s condemnatory moral rectitude – and a delicate lightness of tone that exudes from her judgment-free demeanor. But this woman is no one-dimensional, elderly sweetie. At one moment, fed up with Sixsmith’s smugness, the innocence turns and she calls him, “a fecking idiot”. There’s nothing like some well-placed curses to crack up an audience and jolt you away from patronising.
In the end it’s her willingness to offer forgiveness to the church that is the story’s moral high point and director Frear’s moment of restrained anger. Well…it’s a high-point in a bar set by the church, which is very low indeed.