Review of Philomena
By Adam Tawfik
For hundreds of years the Catholic Church has been one of the more powerful political and economic forces in the world. Their influence has significantly shaped American film history as their lobby led to the implementation of the Production Code, the first censorship regime undertaken by the major Hollywood studios from the early 1930s until the 1950s. In contrast to their insentience on the sanitation in films, the Church has been rocked with homophobia, pedophilia, and misogyny. The lid burst open only recently, but the Catholic Church’s reputation is progressively escalating to the deepest depths of hell.
One of the more prolific scandals centered around the Magdalene Sisters, a group of Irish nuns that stole the babies of unwed mothers and sold them to wealthy American families. In 1952, Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clarke and Judi Dench) was one of the victims of this human rights violation. Fifty years later after many years of mourning the loss, the kindly retired Irish nurse falls into a depression. Her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) who is waitressing at a fancy literary party, approaches Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a recently sacked highbrow journalist to help her mother track down her missing son.
Naturally, there has been some backlash to Philomena, a British film based off of Sixsmith’s account. New York Post film critic Kyle Smith angrily denounced it as “another hateful attack on Catholics.” Unlike Smith’s reactionary article, Philomena’s script co-authored by Coogan and Jeff Pope never attacks Catholicism, but the bureaucracy. The execution of this theme is one of the film’s strongest points.
It subtly but forcefully shows how the institution is crooked and underhanded and how it changes over time. In the olden days, the monastery was a barren and dark place cast in monochromatic brown and gray palettes, while most of the nuns (with the exception of one) were nasty and unempathetic to the unwed mothers. Things look more progressive in the present day: the convent looks nice and welcoming, they offer visitors tea, and there’s even an African nun. As soon as Philomena and Sixsmith begin probing, it is quickly apparent that the nuns are still devious under the friendly façade. The convent has become a commercial operation with teleshopping products for sale at a display table.
The film loses steam in its second half, after the pair discover the identity of Philomena’s lost son. I wished that the film probed more into his life and the hidden reality of unhappy family dynamic that was only briefly alluded to, to counteract Philomena’s notion of his great, privileged life that she couldn’t give him. Instead, there’s an overreliance on flashbacks that don’t advance the action. Answers from leads come too early, not leaving enough time for suspense or anything resonating. For example, when Philomena confronts Pete Olsson (Peter Hermann), the companion of her son, he’s incredulously forthcoming with a major key to the puzzle, but up to that encounter, he’s quite hush-hush and hostile.
There are certain comparisons to be drawn to another of Coogan’s films, The Trip. Trip, more characteristic of Coogan’s caustic brand of comedy, had two strengths over Philomena. Firstly, the script was sharper and dialogue had more punch, but more importantly, especially for a road film it had two rounded, three-dimensional characters.
Outside of being a sarcastic atheist and being confrontational with the nuns, Coogan has given his character very little to do and is just there for the most part. He is clearly uncomfortable at conveying the softer side of his role. It’s a huge step down from the highly comic and tragic performance he gave as the flawed protagonist in The Trip.
On the other hand, Dench deserves all the critical acclaim and awards attention. Interestingly, two of her better roles in the last seven years came from going against her grain of playing confident, sophisticated upper-crust women, and portraying working class women. Philomena is the polar opposite of the bitter, obsessive and emotionally unstable teacher in Notes on a Scandal, as she is kind, gentle, and loving. Thanks to Dench’s skilled performance, this almost-too-good-to-be-true character doesn’t feel like a romanticized idealization.
Dench, who has proven herself to be a deft light comedienne, handles many of her character’s corny one-liners with aplomb. The film’s highlight is when Philomena recounts the plot of a trivial romantic novel with painstaking detail, making it sound far better than it is. The childlike wonder and lack of sophistication catch us by surprise, but Dench instills this performance with great wisdom and intelligence. Her warm expression and an almost Zen-like demeanor is juxtaposed by the strong undercurrent of forlornness, grief, and resentment imprinted in her eyes. Scenes depicting Dench in quiet reflection are the film’s most endearing moments.
While the rest of the cast ably play their roles, two supporting performances stand out. Michelle Fairley takes the familiar role of the pushy, impersonal book editor and adds color by subtly satirizing her single-minded and opportunistic character. Veteran stage and screen actress Barbara Jefford is stellar in her tiny but crucial role as the older deceptive Sister Hildegarde, showing the shiftiness in her eyes and putting self-righteousness on full unpleasant display. Jefford gives the audience an inkling that she might have erred in her thinking after Philomena forgave her for her callousness.
As a classic film buff, I enjoyed the moment where Sixsmith cheekily mistook Jane Russell for Jayne Mansfield just to irk the nun. There’s something there that relates to a larger theme of the film about the hypocrisy of the Catholic bureaucracy. Russell, who starred in the then highly controversial The Outlaw and continued in a succession of roles that capitalized on her voluptuous bosom and hour-glass figure, managed to achieve respectability from the industry and the movie-going public because of her vocal Christian and right-wing beliefs. The busty Mansfield, in spite of showing great promise as an able and intelligent comedienne, was given more and more degrading roles in B-movies and Euro porn, and was looked down upon by the audience and film industry.
Philomena is a well-crafted film that had moments of greatness, but afterwards, I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed. By no means did I feel cheated the price of admission, yet I was expecting something a little more substantial than a sweet, unsuspecting little old lady and a cynical and unsentimental journalist forming a personal and professional friendship. Considering all the great films out this year, you might want to wait for this to come on Netflix.