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Philomena

Released 2013. Director: Stephen Frears

I LIKE A GOOD HUMAN INTEREST STORY. DON'T YOU? According to ex-BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, played here by Steve Coogan, a human interest story is a “euphemism for stories about weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people, to fill in newspapers read by vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people.” Okay, steady on there, Martin.

Philomena is a human interest story but it is not about the kind of people Martin described. On the contrary, it’s a story about strong characters, compassionate, kind, even world-class cynical.

Based on the true story The Lost Child of Philomena Lee written by Martin Sixsmith, this movie is about a mother’s search for her 3-year-old boy snatched from her some 50 years ago.

When Philomena fell pregnant, her father sent her to the convent in shame. That was back in the dark days of 1952 in Ireland. At the abbey in Roscrea, the nuns treated unwed mothers like Philomena as slaves. These 'fallen women' were sinners in the nuns’ eyes and undeserving of love. One day the nuns simply sold Philomena’s child to a wealthy couple from overseas without even telling her. Philomena has kept her secret for five decades. But she’s often wondered if her son ever thinks of her, if he ever remembers…

In turning Martin's pages into a movie, director Stephen Frears has two distinct strengths on his hands: writing and acting. Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope have made their script a contrast between the hard-boiled cynicism of a weary, atheistic and dour journalist (Martin writes about Russian history) and the optimism and energy of a religious and cheerful woman (Philomena delights in summarizing romance novels for him). This odd couple travel together from Britain to America and their interactions are delightful and sad in equal measure. More than a road movie about two incompatible companions, Philomena also reflects on faith, empathy, sexuality and an uncomplimentary side of the Catholic Church.

As a woman with simple tastes haunted by her past, thespian royalty Judi Dench’s portrayal of Philomena is beautifully nuanced and one of her best – that’s saying much for someone who has been acting since 1959 and given us some of the most memorable characters in cinema. Steve Coogan, better known as a comedian, keeps his comic genius under wraps and plays a straight role with great control. Mix together the self-righteousness and condescension of Martin and Philomena’s open-heartedness and genuine emotions and you get a chemistry lesson.

The search for a lost son is recounted as a human interest article for a newspaper. Naturally the story needs a villain and in this case, it’s the nuns. These servants of God are depicted as bitter, unfeeling, un-Christian, with little love or care but completely consumed by a sense of punishment for women who have ‘sinned’. Yet Philomena, the movie as well as the person, let them off lightly.

It’s arguable if this was a lost opportunity to comment more strongly on the Catholic Church’s treatment of young unwed mothers at the time. Nevertheless the heart of this story is found in Philomena’s own spiritual journey, and in her forgiveness for those responsible. This woman is such a kind person she’s a saint. Watching her makes you want to be a better person who can be magnanimous and forgive anyone of anything, including taking away your child.

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