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When former journalist Martin Sixsmith is dismissed from the Labour Party in disgrace, he is at a loss as to what do. That changes when a young Irish woman approaches him about a story of her mother, Philomena, who had her son taken away when she was a teenage inmate of a Catholic convent. Martin arranges a magazine assignment about her search for him that eventually leads to America. Along the way, Martin and Philomena discover as much about each other as about her son's fate. Furthermore, both find their basic beliefs challenged. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (email@example.com)
Another heartbreaking & excellent reason not to be Catholic.
Steve Coogan is in danger of becoming a good actor. After the dull thud that was Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, 2013 has seen Coogan turn heads as Paul Raymond in The Look of Love and more than hold his own in What Massie Knew. And now comes Philomena, which he co-wrote, co-produced and stars alongside Judi Dench.
Based on the 'human interest' story of Philomena Lee (Dench) written by out of favour journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), Philomena recounts the true story of a devout Catholic girl who was abandoned by her father at a convent when she fell pregnant out of wedlock. The nuns at the convent, while abusing the many girls in their care and subjecting them to what accounted to slavery, ran a sideline business in selling their babies to rich Americans. Fifty years after the theft of her son, Philomena, riddled with good old Catholic guilt, goes in search of her son aided by Sixsmith but the nuns, not content with their initial abuse and kidnapping, weave a shroud of lies to thwart her.
For those who have seen Peter Mullan's excellent The Magdalene Sisters, or read the news any time over the past couple of decades, you'll be very familiar with the many indiscretions of the Catholic church and the multitudinous cover-ups that have ensued. If ever there was need for yet another reason not to be Catholic, Philomena is it. But Coogan and director Stephen Frears are at pains not to make this a catholic-bashing exercise. Wrongs are highlighted and they cannot change the opinions of the viewers, but judgment of specific individuals is held at bay. In the final act, though it's not a huge shock, there is hope given for humanity, regardless of religion.
Philomena is a simple story of huge consequence and heartbreak. So often one finds oneself thinking evil thoughts and relief that it happened to someone else, and that is a fine achievement of the director. He unravels the story as he loosens the binds on his characters. Certain elements feel too good to be true and we find ourselves dreading the Hollywood veneer that often coats 'based on truth' stories, but Frears never falls into that trap and stands fast to tell the truth. Frears is back to the form of 2006's award-laden The Queen, and Philomena, complete with another Dame in the title role, looks like taking more gold before the award season is out.
Judi Dench is wonderful here, but then how often is she anything but? She brings much gentle humour to the role of a woman who has lived a very simple life of toil, secrets and hidden emotions, who is unaware that the drinks on her flight are free. It is easy to view her as a woman from the backwaters with no experience of the real world, and then she drops statement that makes it perfectly clear she is aware of the world around her; she just chooses not to engage in all of its activities and attitudes. It is an uncomplicated performance that feels very true, very real and is very affecting. One hopes that the real Philomena is at ease and comforted by Dench's respectful portrayal.
Coogan continues to be a revelation. Gone (finally) is his reliance on Alan Partridge idiosyncrasies and instead he has climbed into a character that is real and flawed in a natural way. It's not a performance that is going to make jaws hit the floor but he plays assuredly against Dench, ensuring she has something more than a plank to react to. His next big screen outing, Northern Soul with Antonia Thomas (Sunshine on Leith) is suddenly a very attractive prospect.
Philomena is one of those fine cinema experiences that leaves one questioning one's own capacity for resilience and forgiveness. Whilst the crimes are heinous, is anything truly unforgivable? More than that, Philomena is a film that lingers. It is never going to have the wow factor of, say, Gravity or bring forth the smiles Sunshine on Leith, but it is fine story worthy of your attention an accolades.
Just not if you're a certain type of nun.
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