Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

26 August

 

Mother Teresa born, 1910

On this day in 1910, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, Albania (now in the Republic of Macedonia). Raised a Catholic, from an early age she was interested in the work of missionaries and by the age of 12 had decided to devote herself to the religious life. At 18 she joined the Sisters of Loreto, became a missionary and never saw her mother or sister again. After a stint in Loreto Abbey, Ireland, where she learnt English, she went to India, arriving there in 1929, aged 19. Twenty five years later she became headmistress of the school she taught at in Calcutta. Increasing poverty, a famine in 1943 and the outbreak of Muslim/Hindu violence in 1946 led her to believe that it was the alleviation of poverty, not the delivery of education, that was her true calling. In 1948 she moved into the slums of Calcutta, tending the sick, destitute and hungry. A small group of similarly minded women gathered around her and by 1950 she had received permission from the Vatican to start a mission to help “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” As the years went by, Mother Teresa (as she had become known) opened a hospice for the poor to die with dignity, a centre for the treatment of leprosy and a home for lost and abandoned children. Her Missionaries of Charity started to spread through India in the 1950s and internationally in the 1960s. Mother Teresa became internationally famous, travelling to war-torn Beirut in 1982 to rescue trapped children, to Chernobyl to visit radiation victims, to Ethiopia during the 1984 famine, to Armenia after the 1988 earthquake. After suffering a heart attack in 1983, contracting pneumonia in 1989, breaking her collar bone and picking up malaria in 1996, she died in 1997 of heart disease.

 

 

 

Philomena (2013, dir: Stephen Frears)

Philomena tells the story of two very different people. It’s a true story too. On the one hand we have a former BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who became a spin doctor for the Labour government before being bum-rushed out of that position (essentially by fellow journalists in one of the UK media’s regular moments of breathtaking hypocrisy). On the other is a retired Irish woman whose son, born out of wedlock, was taken off her by nuns when she was a slip of a girl. Sixsmith’s book on which this film is based tells the story of how the cynical hack first took on Philomena’s story, reluctantly (“human interest story is a euphemism for weak-minded human interest story,” says Martin to Philomena’s daughter, who he’s met at a party). Then it goes into the detail of the uneasy confessor/penitent relationship of biographer and subject, before finally describing their journey together to the US to find the by-now middle aged man. It’s a real mismatched buddies road movie of a story and would remain as generic as that sounds if it weren’t for the fact that Sixsmith wrote a poignant, self-deprecating book, and it’s been so well adapted to a screenplay by Steve Coogan, who also plays Martin. And given Coogan’s well publicised battles with the British press, having him play one of its representatives would seem to guarantee an interesting portrait at the least. In fact Coogan plays Sixsmith as a nobber, the sort of guy who’s full of petty triumphs and little moments of self-aggrandisement. Opposite him is Judi Dench as Philomena, the dithery but inwardly independent Irish woman who’s familiar to anyone who has an Irish mother. So when Martin hires a car for them to do their preliminary scouting excursions, he gets a BMW, and is proud of its swankiness; to this party she brings some custard creams and a packet of Tunes cough sweets for the journey. When they check into a nice hotel, he’s all blasé; she’s phoning him from her room to ask “Martin, do you have a little chocolate on your pillow.” The film could survive perfectly well on the funny double act that these two do – and doesn’t it say so much about Dench that she can be 007’s boss one moment, and is wringing a laugh out of simple lines like “it’s fruit bread, Martin” the next?
“I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, Martin…” she says later, as the film actually gets down to business and Philomena reveals the naiveté that led her to become pregnant as a young teenager, and then led her to accept the idea that her child should be taken from her. After a “fucking Catholics” by Martin, we’re off into darker territory and the destination of this film’s journey – the son, where he is now, the possible reunion, the explanations, tears and so on. I’m not going to reveal what actually happens, though plenty of reviews will, for reasons which are actually fairly understandable. Because though there is an emotional pay off at the end of the road this duo travel, first in Ireland and then in the USA, it’s the journey not the destination that is the joy of the film. Chalk and cheese (he wants to go to the Lincoln Memorial; she’d rather stay in the hotel and watch Big Momma’s House), with the obligatory “lessons learned on both sides” – but done properly.
Dench’s Irish accent drifts a touch, but it is an otherwise exquisite portrait of a resolutely fair, honest and optimistic woman, a perfect counter-balance to Coogan’s, his usual finger of Alan Partridge entirely appropriate here. I’d be happier without the pantomime evil nun Sister Hildegarde right at the end, but she does at least make the point that feelings run high on this issue, and that the nuns had a cogent worldview too, one in which “carnal incontinence” was something to be battled against. As for Stephen Frears’s direction, it’s a master class in old Hollywood storytelling – of Howard Hawks economy and lightness of touch. Invisible to the eye, all the hard work concealed.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great Steve Coogan script
  • A great Judi Dench performance
  • Manages to be funny and yet serious
  • Artful direction by Stephen Frears

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Philomena – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Philomena”

  1. As several critics have observed, this wonderful film, just shown at TIFF, is destined to become this year's King's Speech (which began its Oscar run in Toronto too, though Philomena has already picked up accolades in Venice). Both British films have strongly emotional undercurrents leavened by wry humour, feature outstanding performances from the leads and are based on true stories.

    Judi Dench, as the Irish woman whose out-of-wedlock son is taken from her by Catholic nuns and sold to a rich American couple in the 1950's, has never been better. She imbues the role with a mix of wisdom (after all, as she reminds us repeatedly, she was nurse for 30 years) and naiveté that would seem to be impossible were it not so deftly handled. While the cynical atheist portrayed by Steve Coogan rarely misses an opportunity to poke fun at her, more often than not she enjoys the last laugh.

    Despite the consummate acting, and Frears' slick directing, the greatest treat of the film is Steve Coogan's screenplay. Given its subject matter, the story could easily have veered into melodrama, but just when it is on the verge of doing so Coogan pulls us back from the edge. Thankfully, Coogan himself is there to convey precisely the proper blend of sarcasm and compassion.

  2. Having lived the mother-baby home experience in Ireland (born at another of the Sacred Heart homes, Bessboro, in Cork in 1960, and trafficked to the US in 1961) and working as an advocate for the rights of adopted people and survivors of Irish Magdalene Laundries for more than twenty years, I'm always prepared to be either underwhelmed or angry at the film industry's ineptitude with subjects like this, I have to say I have not been as pleasantly surprised since Mike Leigh's excellent 'Secrets and Lies' and Peter Mullan's superb 'The Magdalene Sisters'. Frears, Coogan, Dench et al give Philomena's very true story such punch, truth and pathos, a heady accomplishment given the subject matter.

    I look forward to the film's US release and urge my fellow 'Banished Babies' to see it, although I recommend going with support as it's very triggering. Let's hope Philomena's strength and tenacity, so powerfully portrayed by Dame Judy, coax more mothers living in shame and denial to reach out to their lost children before it's too late.

  3. My wife talked me into going, I wanted to see Captain Philips but she was adamant this time. We both grew up in Ireland and I didn't want to see another one of those movies focused on stereotypes, the marketing blob types like the Quiet Man and Ryan's Daughter…stereotypical nonsense that lampoon our history and our culture. Steve Coogan and Judy Dench, especially Judy got it just right from the very start. They were smart, witty, serious and most of all, Judy was 'Irish' They really got the spirit of an Irish mom, that cocktail of guilt, generosity, inferiority and a heart to care for the entire world spot on. Dench in the hotel thanking everybody for being 'so nice' and getting who her son was as a child as others were today trying to 'break the news' to her…she wasn't just a step ahead, she was years ahead. Really excellent, really well done. Beautiful!

  4. Steve Coogan deserves utmost respect for producing and writing this film. His script is excellent, consistently witty and engaging on the surface whilst spinning many more layers beneath the surface which became unconsciously stirring. Normally with these kinds of films I find the humour becomes contrived, forced or inappropriate, like the writers/director buckle under a need to impress and please the audience. You won't find those jarring moments here – Philomena is expertly judged and balanced. The story itself is fascinating, and again Coogan's script steers clear from overt sentimentality to allow the humanity to speak for itself. A gentle, funny, heartbreaking and unforgettable film. I actually much prefer it to the Kings Speech.

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