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A path of many twists and turns that keeps you engaged every minute of the way
on December 2, 2013
Sometimes a film will surprise you by just how unexpectedly good it is. Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Liam, My Beautiful Launderette), with a screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, Philomena is one of those films. An extraordinary story about a woman's real-life search for the child she was compelled to give up for adoption fifty years earlier, it's also a marvelous character study of two highly mismatched people brought together by chance to solve a mystery with both knowing that the odds are very much against them. And even though this sort of story has been done many times before, Philomena not only manages to avoid cliche, it takes surprising twists and turns along the way showing that real life can indeed trump the best that fiction has to offer. It engages you from the very beginning, draws you further in with each scene until you are so deeply invested in the characters and their quest that everything that unfolds on the screen matters to you.
The plot begins with Philomena Lee (marvelously played by Judi Dench) , a retired Irish woman living in England with her grown daughter, staring at a small old photograph of a little boy about 3 years old. When her daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), asks, Philomena reveals a secret she's kept all her adult life - that when she was a young girl in Ireland she had a son out of wedlock that she was forced, very much against her will, to give up for adoption. The details of her story are revealed in flashbacks in which we see young Philomena (a compelling performance by Sophie Kennedy Clark) held in one of Ireland's now infamous Magdalene Asylums, institutions run by various orders of nuns where many young Irish girls of the time were sent for getting pregnant (as well as any number of other "improprieties" such as engaging in prostitution, being promiscuous or sometimes just for flirting), becoming virtual prisoners - and slave labor - beyond the reach of the secular law and with no hope of appeal. She has been haunted by this her entire life, always wondering what became of her little boy, and finding her every attempt to find out thwarted by the implacable bureaucracy of the Irish church.
At the same time, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan in a deft counterpart to Dench), a former adviser to the current Labour government at the time, has just lost his job due to a minor scandal due to something he said. Given the sack in his mid-fifties, Martin is at loose ends, unsure of what to do with himself, vacillating between taking up running or pursuing a vaguely-formed notion of writing a book on Russian history. Prior to working in government though, Martin was a journalist of sorts, and while at a party an editor friend of his suggest that perhaps he should try his hand at doing a "human interest" story. Jane, who happened to be at the party, overhears this and approaches Martin with the story of her mother's dilemma over her lost son, thinking that perhaps he can help. Martin, who had openly said he wasn't interested in doing human interest story as he considered them nothing but fluff, brushes her off. But later, when pondering his options, he finds himself drawn back to Jane's idea. He gets her name and number from another friend and calls her to set up a meeting with Philomena, and soon they're off, going first to the convent in Ireland, where Martin learns firsthand just what Philomena has been up against.
I can't speak of what subsequently unfolds plot-wise without spoiling the revelations and discoveries that are made, but a lot of what makes the film so enjoyable is simply watching Dench and Coogan's mismatched characters interact with each other. Where Martin is world-weary, a bit cynical and of a suspicious nature, Philomena is trusting, irrepressibly chatty, and finds delight in the simplest things, all of which tends to drive Martin up the wall. But in spite of the first impression that we first get of her, as the film progresses Philomena reveals that she's far from naive about life, having moments where she shows a remarkably clear-eyed view of the world (particularly when it comes to sex). It's simply that she refuses to let the bad things that have happened to her color her view of everything else in life. But this attitude, while in some ways admirable, is not very helpful when one is up against forces that are deliberately trying to prevent people from digging up the past, and this is where Martin's suspicious nature proves its worth as he begins to examine the stories they're being told and openly question their veracity, a thing Philomena by nature is not capable of. But what truly works more than anything else is the way Dench's Philomena is delightfully funny even though she's not trying to be, completely oblivious to the way she's coming across to Martin, while Coogan's Martin is hopelessly inept at being funny, most especially when he's trying to be, one of those unfortunate individuals who cannot tell a joke to save their life. It's a comic chemistry of a very human kind, made completely natural by two superb actors at the top of their form.
Also worth mentioning is the beautiful film score by Alexandre Desplat that heightens the mood without intruding on or distracting from the events on screen, and the cinematography by Robbie Ryan that really captures the intimacy of the story and the characters involved.
On a side note, it helps if you can find Peter Mullan's 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, which is all about the Magdalene Asylums and their decades-long horrendous abuses of vulnerable young Irish women, most notably forcibly taking their children away from them and compelling the women to work in the institution's laundries which the nuns operated as a commercial enterprise, reaping the profits while the women working in them got nothing. The parts of Philomena that only touch on those abuses fall into greater context if you've seen the earlier film.
Highly, highly recommended as an engaging film on every level, a very human story worth hearing, and for the wonderfully mismatched chemistry between Dench and Coogan's characters.