Monday, December 9, 2013


Review by Pamela Zoslov

Amid the flood of December “big” movie releases, PHILOMENA appeared in theaters like a perfectly wrapped present for those who like small, quiet pictures. Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, the movie tells the story of Philomena, a retired nurse in England, who enlists Sixsmith in a quest to find the son she was forced to relinquish as a teenager by nuns at an Irish convent home in 1952. Lee was one of thousands of young Irish women confined to convents in the '50s and '60s because of the shame and “moral degeneracy” of unwed pregnancy.

The film is a genteel duet between the fine actress Judi Dench, as Philomena, and actor, writer and comedian Steve Coogan, as Sixsmith. The screenplay, written by Coogan and Jeff Pope, provides some well observed and very English nuances. The dialogue illustrates the class differences between Philomena, a rather simple and plain-spoken Irish lady given to reciting the plots of romance novels, and Martin, an Oxford-educated, slightly dour BBC man. Dench is too intelligent an actress to entirely convey Philomena's artlessness, but she's nonetheless riveting and, at times, heartbreaking. Coogan is perfect at portraying Martin's distant but sympathetic demeanor.

A chance meeting with Philomena's daughter leads Martin to undertake Philomena's search for her long-lost boy, whose loss is vividly illustrated in flashback scenes. Young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) has been dumped in the convent after becoming pregnant at 18 by a handsome boy she met at a carnival. Like many other girls, she is used as slave labor, doing hard laundry work, at the convent at Roscrea in County Tipperary.

The girls are allowed to see their children for only one hour a day, and we see them running eagerly to embrace their tots. The convent is also in the business of selling children to the highest bidders, often wealthy Americans (including actress Jane Russell). One day an American couple, who have come to adopt the little daughter of Philomena's friend, also decide to take the girl's inseparable pal, Philomena's boy, Anthony. Philomena watches, screaming desperately, as the couple drive her son away in their car. Though it sounds hopelessly melodramatic, this is what actually happened in Philomena's life.  The girls were compelled by the nuns to sign documents relinquishing all maternal rights to their children.

Philomena buried the memory of little Anthony in her heart, got married and had a family, but she never forgot him, always wondering what became of him and if he remembered her. Fifty years later, she at last decided to tell her grown daughter about the little boy she loved and lost.

Martin, who had been involved in a political imbroglio over a leaked memo while working in communications for the Tony Blair government (he had suggested news of a controversial announcement be “buried” in the wake of September 11), is casting about for a subject to write about. He actually wants to write a book about Russian history, but is drawn into Philomena's story, not least because of his own anticlerical views. On their journey, Martin and Philomena debate the existence of God. Despite how she was treated by the Catholic Church, Philomena remains devout, attending Mass and forgiving the nuns who abused her.

At the expense of the magazine Martin is writing for, Philomena and Martin travel to Washington, D.C., where Martin plans to conduct a document search for Philomena's lost son. The portrayal of the quest is foreshortened by his quick discovery, via his laptop at the hotel, of her son's biography online. The real-life quest for information about Philomena's son was more complicated, and this seems like a misstep in the film's narrative — the mystery is solved too early. But there is far more to tell. Martin and Philomena learn that the Church's sins are far worse than previously imagined. Their journey ultimately leads them back to the convent in Roscrea, where the sins of the past are unearthed.

Like the character of Martin, the screenplay is taciturn, revealing too little about Philomena. Who was her husband? What was her life like after the convent? But the film is effective as a character study of two contrasting personalities. In Washington, Martin suggests they visit the monuments; Philomena would prefer to watch BIG MOMMA'S FAMILY on pay-per-view. At one point, Martin, on the phone from the hotel to his wife, expresses, in a very English way, his exasperation with Philomena's simpleness. “This is what a steady diet of The Daily Mail does.” It is Philomena, however, who is more effective at getting people to open up and provide information; Martin's officiousness only makes them angry. Philomena's combination of warmth and steely determination lead the story to its sad but ultimately peaceful conclusion.

This rather traditional, linear story benefits from the considerable directorial talents of Stephen Frears, who maintains a welcome sense of understatement, enhanced by Robby Ryan's contemplative pastoral cinematography. 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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