Film Review: Philomena (2013)

Jeni Morris reviews Philomena, the 2013 film directed by Stephen Frears and based on the true story of Philomena Lee.  philomena Starring Judi Dench as the eponymous character and Steve Coogan as writer Martin Sixsmith, Philomena is a tale—based on a true story—about one Irish woman’s search to find the son that was taken from her by Magdalene nuns when she was just a teenager. After many years of getting nowhere in her pursuit, she enlists the help of “human-interest” writer, Martin Sixsmith. Though at odds with one another about their religious beliefs—or lack thereof—they work together, travelling across continents to find out what happened to the boy. Of course, like any sort of road-trip movie, it has plenty of humour and drama and is as much about self-discovery as it is about the discovery of others.Through the course of the film Philomena and Martin discover that the religious and social class differences they assumed of one another are only one side of who they both are. As they embark on their journey to Ireland and the US (then back to Ireland again), they are placed in unfamiliar surroundings that inevitably bring to light their less obvious personality traits and little idiosyncrasies. Their identities—and how their religious beliefs and social upbringings have shaped them—are called into question. Despite its title, Philomena perhaps questions the character of Martin Sixsmith more than Philomena herself. Though treated with such cruelty by the nuns and shunned by her family, Philomena is physically weakened, but still spiritually strong. She is neither a pushover (but does have a dodgy hip, as she often explains) nor is she naïve. In contrast, Sixsmith—to all appearances—is confident in his abilities and convictions, but beneath this façade he is very nervous about his physical and spiritual wellbeing.A number of critics, Catholic or otherwise, have argued that this film is hypocritical, that in its supposed attack against institutional religion, the writers and director have used and abused Philomena just as the church did. Their viewpoint is pretty understandable, but I think this hypocrisy was the intention of the filmmakers. So many of the characters in the film can be seen as victim and victimiser, the used and the user of others in furthering their own objectives. Furthermore, the blurring between fact and fiction is thematic in the movie, underscored by the music and—like breadcrumbs—little references to fairy tales dropped along the course of the movie. From a half-eaten red apple to a hall of mirrors at a fairground, the distinction between what is reality and fantasy is intentionally distorted. The movie, like so many fairy tales, thus invites the viewer to question all they see and believe: how do our memories alter past experiences? How much of the “truth” can be discovered and does it necessarily matter? It is hardly any wonder that Philomena would choose to believe in God when all she sees before her is at once real and unreal.Overall it is a quiet film but one that resonates long after you leave the theatre. Like other Stephen Frears films (Tamara Drewe, Dangerous Liaisons and My Beautiful Launderette, to name a few) Philomena, is a fascinating study of human nature. It depicts fully rounded characters—neither entirely hero nor villain—that the camera explores and toys with, highlighting the subtleties and idiosyncrasies of human nature.  Jeni Morris Photo credit: The Weinstein Co.