Dir. Stephen Frears. U.K.  2013.

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Adapted by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope from Martin Sixsmith's 2009 book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Stephen Frears’ Philomena is the story of an Irish woman who teams up with a British journalist to look for the son she was forced to give up fifty years earlier. It is both a comic “buddy” road trip and a stinging commentary on the practices of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland in the 1950s, though the impact of its message about the inhumane effects of religious dogma is undercut by its feel-good banality. The fact that it hangs together as well as it does is due to the superb work of Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, the mother seeking the truth about her son and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, a cynical ex-BBC journalist looking for a “human interest” story to restart his flagging career.

As a teenager, Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) had an affair with a young man whom she had met briefly at a county fair. Pregnant and rejected by her family, she is sent to a church-run home for unmarried pregnant women in Roscrea, County Limerick in Ireland. Here she gives birth to a son, Andrew, under the judgmental eyes of nuns who attribute her pain in childbirth to God’s wrath for her promiscuity. The young Philomena, working long hours at the convent in what amounted to slave labor, is allowed to spend only one hour a day with her son. Sadly, when the boy is three-years-old, he is “sold” under his mother’s watchful eyes to an American couple who make a large donation to the church, a practice supported by the Irish government.

On Andrew’s birthday fifty years later, Philomena reveals the story to her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), telling her that she knows nothing about what has happened to him but thinks about him every day. Philomena, however, is introduced at a party to a journalist who had just been fired from his job and who reluctantly and with much sneering agrees to pursue Philomena’s “human interest” story which he pitches to a magazine editor. As Martin and Philomena attempt to track down Anthony’s whereabouts, a search that will bring them to Washington, D.C., the film becomes less about the investigation than about the interactions of the unlikely duo.

The two do have a certain amount of charm together, but the film unfortunately turns the sincere and devoutly religious Philomena into an unsophisticated middlebrow bumpkin who relates in excruciating detail the plot of a romance novel she is reading, loves movies such as Big Momma’s House, and who, on visiting the Lincoln Memorial declares “Look at him up there in his big chair!” Though the film exploits her naivety for laughs, she wins the day in the purity department when contrasted with Martin, the snarky, cynical Oxford graduate who calls the nuns the "Sisters of Little Mercy," and uses warped humor to assert his antagonism to all religion.

Philomena’s story is basically a simple one of faith and love and the willingness to overlook and forgive the wrongs done to her. Unfortunately, it receives an over-sentimentalized and maudlin treatment at the hands of Frears that negates the film’s enlightened message about the true substance of faith – love, charity, and compassion. Though we are told from the outset that the film has been “inspired” by real events, the caption should have read “uninspired” and “by-the-numbers.”


Howard Schumann

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