2 Jan 2014


Director:             Stephen Frears
Producer:            Steve Coogan
Screenplay:        Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
Book:                  Martin Sixsmith
Starring:             Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark,                                   Anna Maxwell Martin, and Michelle Fairley. 

One of the more curious things people have said to me is, "I was born in the wrong time, I should have been born in (insert historical period here)".  Now I get the appeal of history I really do, but I think I like toilet paper, medicine, international travel and not being oppressed by the local nobility even more.

But not everything about our recent history is an improvement, like the story of Philomena Lee.

Film synopsis:

In 1952 in Ireland, an unwed Philomena Lee got pregnant. She had her baby, Anthony, at the local convent. She worked in the nuns' laundry for four years and she was allowed to see Anthony for an hour each day.

Anthony was adopted out by the nuns during this time and Philomena never knew what happened to him. Once she left the convent she did not tell a soul about him, until fifty years later on the anniversary of his birthday, she finally tells her daughter Jane.

Martin Sixsmith was a foreign correspondent for the BBC in Washington and Moscow, before working for Tony Blair's administration. Martin lost his job over an email he sent, and is now out of work.  While contemplating his future and his past, Martin is approached by Jane to help her mother find Anthony. Martin decides that Philomena's story would make a good human interest piece and agrees.

Ensue the search for the missing child.

At its heart Philomena is a road trip movie. It's a journey of discovery both figuratively and literally for the jaded atheist Sixsmith, and the irrepressible Philomena. They are from different generations, and social classes, with different values and beliefs about tradition, religion and authority.   Philomena accepts and endures life and, solid in her faith, she never questions authority. As a journalist, Sixsmith questions everything, especially religion and authority. Philomena comes from a generation which was brought up to be polite, courteous and with her faith comes an optimism about humanity.  Sixsmith, as a busy and important journalist, is dismissive, cynical and somewhat impolite.

The search for Anthony is challenging for both Sixsmith and Philomena, and the reality of what happened to Philomena in 1952 affects them both. It tests their own world view and their faith in human nature and God. Interestingly, despite the convent's, and the church's treatment of Philomena, the film never portrays her piety disrespectfully. It gracefully avoids that and portrays her with a simple dignity.
(Steve Coogan and Philomena Lee. Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)(Credit: Chris Pizzello/invision/ap)
As you would expect Judi Dench is excellent as Philomena Lee. Her performance was also reminiscent of another important woman in history, my mum. In Dench's portrayal of Philomena I could see the mannerisms and the out look of my mothers generation. In reflection it brings home to me that Philomena's and Anthony's story could have been anyone's story in the wrong circumstances, even mine.

This is obviously a project that Steve Coogan was passionate about, and his performance shows that he is capable of more than Alan Partridge, but despite his thoughtful performance Dench's on screen subtle charisma steals most scenes.

In an age of three hour block busters, at 98 minutes Philomena seems to be over almost too quickly, but I think they get the balance right

The story is funny, thoughtful and horrible all at once. That is the thing about history, it isn't always fun, but it should always be told. It is a very good film, and I suspect it will put Dench in the running for an Oscar.

7 monkeys

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