Film review: 'Philomena': A journey of forgiveness

Surprise, tragedy, controversy, religion unite in compelling story. Photo: Promo still/Weinstein Co.

LOS ANGELES, January 7, 2014 – “Philomena” is a complicated film. It creates challenges for its audience on so many levels that it can be hard to tell exactly what the screenwriter and director wanted to achieve. The film, which tells the story of Philomena Lee (played by the always wonderful Dame Judi Dench), is billed as being “inspired by true events,” meaning not everything you see may have actually happened. 

While the story is based on a moving book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” it is the film’s Director (Stephen Frears) and lead actors (Steve Coogan and Judi Dench) who actually make “Philomena” a stellar film. 

“Philomena” is a biographical drama that may prove difficult for many Catholics, particularly those of Irish descent, to watch. It relates the story of the now-retired Philomena Lee (Ms. Dench) who, as the result of family shame revolving around her unintended pregnancy, was sent to a nunnery in Ireland where she gave birth to her son Anthony. Later, she sadly watched as her son Anthony was adopted by a wealthy American couple and taken away.

Upon what would have been Anthony’s fiftieth birthday, the film’s present-day Philomena notes this anniversary with great sadness mixed with worry about what had happened to her little boy. Fortunately, her daughter (played in the film by Anna Maxwell-Martin) takes it upon herself to pitch Martin Sixsmith (Mr. Coogan), a former BBC newsman and now disgraced Government spokesperson, to pursue Philomena’s quest as a news story.

Martin’s initial reluctance to do so, followed by his decision to relent and to cover such a personal “human interest” story rather than something more lofty and world-changing, immediately hooks the audience in to what will soon become a great but unexpected journey. 

“Philomena” is a movie that operates on many levels, not the least of which is the timeless underlying story of a mother’s search for her son. The film also examines the role of religion in raising, protecting and honoring children; the lingering legacy  of humble, old-school expectations pitted against a brash, ego-centric modern world; the secular media’s eagerness to undermine traditional institutions; the rebuilding or rediscovery of one’s own value in this life; and the exploitation of the common man’s travails for the purpose of entertainment.

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Despite these laudable themes, though, the most important issue that “Philomena” explores is the role that belief and forgiveness play in the human capacity to accept life as it comes.

Throughout the film, there is also an important underlying source of tension and conflict between Philomena and Martin that stems from her strong belief in God as opposed to his utter secular disdain for religion and his lack of belief in a greater power.

Martin views Philomena’s reliance on her religious beliefs to justify what happened to her and her son decades in the past as evidence of a supreme weakness of character. Philomena’s thankfulness both for the Catholic Church and for the nuns who took in both she and her son when they were most needy totally confounds Martin.

Yet paradoxically, while he regards himself as considerably more sophisticated and urbane than his subject, he also is more crude and unhappy in life than the pop-culture happy Philomena, who smiles through life and is warm and comfortable with regular people. Martin himself, reflecting an attitude prevalent throughout today’s ruling class and self appointed cognoscenti, seems quite uncomfortable with those of less serious stature and bearing than he presumes himself to be.

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The life lessons Philomena imparts to Martin Sixsmith are best underscored when she reminds him to be nice to people on the way up because he’ll see them on the way down again. It is a simple lesson that most people have encountered at one time or another. But Martin apparently never learned that lesson at all.

Despite the extreme opposites in their intellectual and spiritual outlooks on life, both Philomena and Martin develop a surprisingly functional mother-surrogate son relationship that at times transcends the actual business arrangement they have chosen to work under. He decides he will help her find her son (with all expenses paid), in exchange for permitting him an exclusive takedown of the “evil nuns”—in the film’s words, not this reviewer’s. 

As a result of this pact, Philomena and Martin embark on a journey of discovery. Their search for Anthony eventually involves U.S. national politics and some of the social issues our country struggles with today.

One of the numerous controversial aspects of this film concerns Anthony’s (Michael Mahon’s) ascent to the highest levels of the Republican Party in this country during the Reagan Administration and how it makes an impact on the overriding story. Facts are facts and the film deals with them correctly as far as it goes. But while the facts presented may be accurate, the way they are presented in “Philomena” could be a little less heavy-handed than is actually the case. But this shouldn’t dissuade either Republicans or anyone else from seeing this film.

That said, there is an unseemliness to the eagerness with which Martin and his newspaper editor hope to create a story that might undermine the Roman Catholic Church, the nuns involved in the story, and the very notion of adoption as underscored in the film. Given similar behavior by the media on both sides of the Atlantic, it may very well reflect the ideological realities of the news business today. If so, it is indeed enlightening.

It is well known, that many mistakes were made by Catholic adoption agencies years ago. Often, the conditions under which the unwed or rejected mothers were made to work and live certainly weren’t ideal or at all deserved, particularly in the notorious case of the Irish Magdalen Laundries scandal, a genuine tragedy that has achieved much recent press coverage both in Ireland and abroad.

However, when women like Philomena openly express their gratitude for the opportunities that their babies ultimately enjoyed after adoption, it is clear that there can be another side to this issue.

Historically, it is difficult for many to understand today that a significant amount of shame was once endured by unwed, pregnant woman of all ages in Western society through the 1950s and sometimes considerably beyond that period. Compounding the problem, even more shame, along with a concurrent lack of opportunity, was endured by the children of these mothers If not adopted, they often grew up in abject poverty due to the stigma surrounding their mothers’ pregnancies.

We won’t toss in any spoilers here. But we will note that “Philomena” does manage to get a positive message across; namely, that an adopted life can be a very good one.

The conclusion of “Philomena” is as powerful as it is astounding. The closing turn of events in the film come about as a surprise even if they shouldn’t.

The film’s most memorable occurs when Philomena wields the supreme power of forgiveness. While she might not have been able to get the answers she sought regarding what happened to her little Anthony after their sorrowful parting so many years ago without Martin’s active intervention, forgiveness and redemption from what happened in the past is still only Philomena’s to grant.

Even though Philomena may have simply been another little Irish granny, she emerges in the film possessing a greater strength than any conceivably imagined by the high-flying Martin. The simple power to forgive remains a struggle for the many and is still a force to be reckoned with.

Perhaps that is the real message of “Philomena.” If so, the worth of this film is considerably more than the sum of its parts.

Rating: **** (4 stars out of 4)

“Philomena” is rated PG-13 and is in theatres now.



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Kevin Williams

Kevin Williams is an accomplished writer, interviewer and critical reviewer having written about or covered many subjects of interests.  Having graduated from Tulane University, La Salle University and New York University, Kevin’s career background in Politics and Civic Affairs, Public Relations, Marketing, Non-Profit Management and Filmmaking have helped inspire much of his past artistic and creative efforts.  Kevin directed and co-produced the documentary feature film, FEAR OF A BLACK REPUBLICAN.  His coming film, REBEL SONG, looks at a middle-aged American Celtic Rock band and the music inspired by the Irish Republican Army.

In addition to The Williams View, Kevin has written for Townhall, Breitbart’s Big Hollywood, Washington Post’s The Root, Liberatchik, Hip Hop Republican and appeared in/on Media outlets such as the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, Kansas City Star, L.A. Weekly, Current TV, Christian Broadcasting Network, Huffington Post Live, Al Jazeera, BET News, National Public Radio, Voice of Russia, Mark Davis Radio Show, Chris Stigall Radio Show and many radio show.  


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