(2013 - Director: Stephen Frears Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan)
Philomena is a film based on true events that should make you want to scream, claw and push your way toward uncovering the truth. But it’s much more than that. It’s about two opposing perspectives on faith and forgiveness.
Philomena’s story is chilling. It should make you furious to witness what happened to her as a teenager. It makes you wonder why it took 50 years for her to reveal her secret. She’s a woman who embodies faith and repentance and her devotion to God and the Catholic Church never swayed despite what they did to her. Enter flailing journalist Martin (Steve Coogan) eager to grab hold of the closest writing opportunity he can, even if it is only Philomena’s lowly human-interest story. He’s a man self-absorbed in pity after losing his job and treating others with respect isn’t high on his priority list. Philomena’s story is simply his next stop to rebuilding his career.
As Martin helps Philomena track down her son who was taken away from her at a young age we see how this path isn’t just hers, but his as well. Philomena is a mystery. How can someone possibly keep this secret, this heartbreak, to herself for so long? We quickly learn how her personality quirks don’t jive well with Martin; the romance novels, thinking everyone she meets is one in a million, her hesitation to accept niceties, her inability to demand answers from the convent. Martin lets it be known that he’s doing her a favor and that she should be grateful he’s even there. She’d be lost without someone as logical and blunt as him. Martin wanted to write a victim story. One where there’s a clear villain and a clear ending. But he gets neither. He arrogantly tells his editor after meeting with Philomena twice that he could write the entire story then and now.
We mostly see Philomena through Martin’s eyes and become confused at how dismissive she is that anyone meant any harm toward her and her son. But we know better. Martin and us know there are secrets waiting to be uncovered. We want Philomena to be mad, like us. But Philomena’s gentleness, kindness, faith in others and faith in God end up being the greatest teacher of all. Martin becomes the student as he sees first hand how to deal with pain without pushing that pain onto others.
But Philomena has dealt with a lifetime of guilt and secrets. She’s dealt with something we can’t possibly understand. We hear her speculate about how her boy grew up; whether he’s rich, or homeless, or if he found love. She’s lost and afraid when she thinks about what happened to her little boy. She’s had nothing but questions and wants nothing but simple answers. She doesn’t want revenge, or to point blame. She wants to know her boy is ok: something so motherly, so tender, so heartfelt that it shows you how the most basic functions of love are the most powerful. When confronted with those responsible, we want her to open up, to tell them how much they hurt her. But she does something much more powerful: she forgives them. Forgiveness is all her heart can offer, and all she needs to find peace. The power of faith and love in the face of intolerable cruelty is something Martin can’t fathom.
Stephen Frears does a remarkable job directing this film. It very easily could have made either Martin or Philomena a punch line to a joke but we walk away with both of their stories coming full circle. In the silly moments we know there’s an underlying pain. The always-reliable Judi Dench is a blast. She delivers a fun and poignant performance with ease. The music by Alexandre Desplat is the unspoken savior of this film, giving each scene just the right amount of weight and tone transition. Philomena is a music heavy film but you wouldn’t notice it. It stays safely out of the way in the background while adding just enough to give the characters somewhere to go.
One last note: the marketing for this film, specifically during awards season, could not have been any worse. Just take a look at this initial poster, aimed to make the film the "quirky comedy" during awards season. It’s atrocious and completely misleading. I get it; the movie is a marketing disaster. But I think they missed a big opportunity to set the stage for this film.