Published on December 24th, 2013 | by Noah Dimitrie0
What would Jesus do? To a person of faith, such is the million dollar question. Everyone seems to know the answer, but in Philomena we’re shown how even the most likely of candidates can get it wrong.
Our story opens with Steve Coogan, playing a journalist named Martin, whose career has been left in jeopardy by an unnamed scandal. He’s tired. He’s scared. He needs a fresh start. Enter, Philomena Lee, an incurable optimist who will provide him with the greatest story of his career.
Philomena was impregnated when she was a teenager; her child was taken from her by the Catholic Church and she was forced to live and work in a convent. Fast forward roughly 60 years and Philomena Lee has decided she wants closure. Her niece (or granddaughter or caretaker; the film doesn’t really say) overhears Martin at a party she is catering. She introduces him to Philomena. As Martin leads Philomena down the road to finding her son, he discovers more than many people would care to know in the form of a scheme, meant to keep mothers from their estranged sons in the name of religious sanctity (or something like that).
Judi Dench (‘M’ in the recent Bond films) plays Philomena with a whimsical naivety. She has been used and abused by her own church, yet she still has faith. She refuses to acknowledge anyone as truly guilty. Coogan’s Martin isn’t quite as forgiving. He’s quick to suspect the Church and even quicker to try to manipulate Philomena into becoming bitter. Not only does he fail, but his attempts also happen to backfire.
As their journey continues, Martin starts to see Philomena for how strong she really is. All she is searching for is closure — not a person to point the finger at. She wants to know that her son had a life of his own. This film isn’t the comedy the trailer suggests. Though it has its funny moments, Philomena is more about an unwavering faith, not in religion, but rather in love and forgiveness. As Martin’s attitude mirrors the sceptical, knee-jerk zeitgeist of our world, Philomena serves as the antidote. She’s exactly the kind of humble, compassionate icon this world needs. And did I mention that she’s real?
That’s right, this film was based on actual events. It’s a little hard to believe, but in fact a real Philomena Lee suffered the same abandonment as the one portrayed in the film. Writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope do a fantastic job bringing this amazing story to the screen with a script that is full of empathy with a side of humour. The characters don’t feel like they’ve been placed together to serve the plot. This is mainly because they are the plot, and the story revolves around their relationship and their journey. A lesser film would have been driven by scandal, like a mediocre episode of Dateline.
Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity) knows exactly how to take this film where it needs to go. He takes the tough, dramatic moments with a grain of salt. He ushers us through the quiet moments with dignity and respect. He clearly has a knack for connecting with the characters and bringing them as close to the audience as possible.
Philomena could so easily have been a jaded, cynical look at a pure evil. Instead, it tells the story of forgiveness. It holds our society up to someone like Philomena and shows us how we can improve. It communicates the hypocrisy that so many people, even religious leaders, can take on. Jesus would love to forgive any person of their sins. The nuns who hold Philomena’s life hostage aren’t so easy to do the same. Are they not supposed to be closer to God than anyone? Philomena shows us how to conquer hate, intolerance, and religious dogma. How? Does turning the other cheek sound familiar?