Philomena is the sobering tale of one mother’s quest for closure and the cold brutality of religion. In alternative hands, its rich, real-life subject matter would have no doubt made for a compelling documentary, complete with unexpected twists, turns and plenty of tears. Instead, Philomena Lee’s story is presented to us through the filter of comedian Steve Coogan, whose ability to coerce droplets of delicious dry humour out of this most shocking of stories is a welcome relief. It’s Coogan’s screenplay – and Stephen Frears’ warm directing skills – which transform this story from a heartbreaking drama into something funny, thought provoking and oddly heartwarming.
It starts with disgraced political journo Martin Sixsmith (Coogan). Having been forced out of the media manipulation game, he reluctantly turns his pen to human interest stories after hearing about an elderly lady and her search for the son she never knew. Growing up in a devoutly Catholic Irish community in the 50s, Philomena Lee’s life got increasingly difficult when she suddenly found herself pregnant. A life in the Sean Ross Abbey ensued, with her archaic habit-wearing masters not looking kindly on her increasingly modern problem. Interaction with her young son Anthony was limited and when an American couple with an eye to adopt arrive unannounced, she was the last to know about it.
Fifty years later and Philomena is still haunted by despairing thoughts of her stolen son. Does he think of his missing mother? Is a warm bed waiting for him at the end of every day? Does he know what really happened all those years ago? When Sixsmith offers to help her track down her MIA offspring, Philomena tentatively agrees, hoping to silence her questioning conscience once and for all. Together they embark on a bittersweet journey to find Anthony and the truth, warts and all.
This isn’t the first time Irish Catholic nuns have been depicted harshly in cinema – Peter Mullen’s The Magdalene Sisters immediately springs to mind – however it’s no less shocking. Philomena’s story is based on the Guardian article The Catholic Church Sold My Child and watching her story unfold on screen is as unbelievable as reading that title for the first time. Dame Judi Dench subtly transforms herself into little old lady mode as a mother who’s both desperate for and scared of the truth, all the while defending the faith that scorned her. Meanwhile Coogan’s stunned atheist Sixsmith delicately guides her towards the facts, softening the cruel blow she’s been dealt with flecks of light but very funny humour throughout.
Philomena’s story is a thought provoking one to say the least and sadly it’s not a rare occurrence, with thousands of mothers in similar boats today. It highlights the bizarre and often painful things that can happen in the name of a belief but also the peace and power that can be found in forgiveness.