Some stories don’t need much embellishment when adapting them for drama. Martin Sixsmith’s human interest article which forms the basis for PHILOMENA is one such story, remarkable and moving, and Steve Coogan who writes and stars does a fine job of bringing Philomena Lee’s tale to life.
In the early 2000s, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) was not a popular man. Estranged professionally and publicly by his controversial actions as a journalist and political advisor, he plans to give himself something to do, in addition to some comfort therapy by writing a long, boring book on Russian history. His plans change when he is persuaded to write an article on Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who was sent to a convent as a young woman when she became pregnant, and had her baby son forcibly removed from her care. Fascinated by the emotional turmoil and moral implications of the story, Sixsmith accompanies Philomena back to her native Ireland and beyond in the hopes of tracking down and reuniting her with Anthony.
Judi Dench giving a great performance is nothing out of the ordinary, it’s what she does in everything after all (CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK? Never heard of it!). That’s not to take anything away from what she does in portraying Philomena, making her a shining light of strength, determination and unswerving goodness, who gets excited by hotels. But it is Steve Coogan’s transformation that is in many ways far more remarkable. There’s a recurring gag in the British mocumentary THE TRIP where Coogan (playing an exaggerated version of himself) complains to his travel companion Rob Brydon that he’ll never be taken seriously as an actor, and will be forever known as the guy who does Alan Partridge. This film could very well change all that. It turns out Coogan can do low-key, and do it incredibly well. There’s no physical, verbal or behavioural tics, nothing showy, he just acts and you forget it’s Steve Coogan on screen. He doesn’t make Sixsmith particularly empathetic, but perhaps embodies the most enviable and idealistic traits of a determined journalist – asking the difficult questions in the search for the (or a) truth.
Philomena is of course heartbreaking. You can’t watch these atrocities unfold and not be moved, not have your heart go out to the young mother (Sophie Kennedy Clark), what she goes through, and what she has to live with (and without) for decades, nor prevent yourself from being outraged at the collective actions of the Catholic Church. The film can be really funny too, the balance between light and shade pitched just right. I challenge you not to giggle at how adorably giddy Philomena gets when she sees the range of breakfast options available at her hotel, and can’t comprehend Martin’s insistence that he doesn’t tend to eat first thing in the morning.
It could (and I’m sure this version of Sixsmith, and maybe the real one too would have wanted it to) be a story about revenge. Philomena would be completely justified in being furious at what the Catholic Church did to her, her son, and their stopping them from meeting for over four decades. But Philomena was, and is, a good person, a great person, and that’s what the film is really about, being good. She forgives, but never forgets.
The film’s main antagonist, if there really is one (excluding the Church in general), is the decrepit Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford). It would be very tempting to force some sort of moral resolution, a change of heart, an apology with this character, but bravely, the script doesn’t require Hildegarde to make any such progress. When she is finally asked the difficult question, “Why?”, so dedicated to her doctrine and way of life is she that decades later she still sees nothing wrong with what her and her Sisters did to Philomena and countless girls like her, and Philomena still forgives her for everything.
She embodies that very Christian of virtues, forgiveness, whereas Sixsmith, like many Atheists (though he’s really more of an agnostic), just wants answers, justifications, where there aren’t really any. If you don’t follow what it says in Scripture, then how can you possibly comprehend atrocities committed in the name of it? It is their clash of wills, in many ways, their differing perspectives in how to handle Philomena’s situation when the whole truth has finally come out, that is the high point of the film. It sums up why this story matters, why it had to be told. A short exchange of words between Philomena and Martin encapsulate the whole affair wonderfully:
“I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you. Look at you.”
“Must be exhausting”.
Philomena does justice to an already remarkable true story, events and characters tweaked just enough, but still handled sensitively by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screenplay and Stephen Frears’ unobtrusive direction to produce the most emotionally satisfying film possible. Dench is great, Coogan is even better, and he seems to have a bright future as a serious writer-performer. I don’t agree for a moment the claim made by some that it’s an anti-Catholic film. It doesn’t hide the fact that the Catholic Church did some monstrous things, and it aims to raise awareness of them, but the main message is always the one that Philomena herself preaches: forgiveness. We should never forget, but we shouldn’t dwell too much on the past either, as it won’t help to make the pain go away when there is nothing to understand. SSP