When a film starring the glorious Dame Judy Dench and the comedic Steve Coogan reaches the big screen, you could be excused for wondering how it could ever find its feet in the canon of political cinema, but it does. Directed by critically acclaimed Stephen Frears (The Queen, 2006 and High Fidelity, 2000), Philomena is one of the most articulate film adaptions of the last ten years; playing host to exquisitely complex characters and subversive illuminations of culture.
The film follows the true-to-life story of Philomena Lee and journalist Martin Sixsmith as they battle with the Catholic Church to find the whereabouts of Philomena’s son Anthony. In hopes of aiding his career as a writer, Sixsmith tentatively decides to aid Philomena in the unraveling of her twisted youth at a convent in Roscrea. The film reveals the brutality of the convent as we watch them actively suppress information at every turn throughout the film.
Dame Judy Dench’s performance as Philomena is nothing short of magnificent (as one might expect). Dench plays a delicate line between a grief stricken mother desperately searching for her first born child, and a woman struggling to break with the religious doctrine that has shadowed her mediation of the world. Equally, Coogan portrays a wonderfully complex and human Martin Sixsmith. The progression of Sixsmith from a shamed and disillusioned ex-political adviser to a reinvigorated journalist is particularly enlightened and well executed. Striking performances from Sophie Kennedy Clark (the Young Philomena) and Barbara Jefford (Sister Hildergarde) only further accentuates the film’s complex architecture.
What is truly engaging about this film is its no-nonsense approach to tackling complex issues. With Stephen Frears’ brilliant directorial hand at the helm, the film tackles the gross discrepancies of the Catholic Church. As we watch the tale of Anthony and Philomena unfold, an audience cannot help but be engaged in the disgusting behaviors of established religious institutions. Although at times the characters seem slightly parodied (Sister Hildergarde and Editor Sally Mitchell), this does not steal focus from a tale that ultimately puts the Catholic Church under the microscope. The rawness of the film might even allow us to consider that perhaps these pastiches of character are embarrassingly close to real life. However, religious doctrine is not all that the film engages with, and that might be its only downfall. In an attempt to tell a true and human story the film briefly courts with the ramifications of homosexuality in the Regan/Thatcher era; a motif that leaves an audience begging for more.
Realistically, this kind of inadequacy is nugatory; it is nearly impossible to tackle these kinds of issues in a ninety-minute window of cinematic voyeurism. Stephen Frears should be commended for such a remarkable and politically engaged film. As its atypical protagonists, a kindly and devout Irish woman and an upper-middle class private school elite, subvert Catholicism, this film finds its own unique way to highlight the injustices of outdated culture.
Written by Matthew Iredale