Stephen Frears‘ Philomena is basically a gentle, tender-hearted, intelligently written film about an elderly Irish mother named Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) looking for a son she was forced to surrender for a blind adoption back in the mid ’50s, and about the fiendish Irish nuns who, consumed by the belief that Philomena was an unfit mother due to becoming pregnant out of wedlock, arranged to sell the boy to American parents. On top of which they kept his origins a secret, even when he returned to Ireland as a grown AIDS-afflicted gay man, trying to find his biological mom. The nuns, based in a convent near Limerick, refused to tell him anything.
“Philomena had likewise been unsuccessful in learning any facts about her son (whose adopted name was Michael Hess) and didn’t come to the truth until she hooked up with author and former government guy Martin Sixsmtih (Steve Coogan), whose book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” is the basis of Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope‘s screenplay.
These are the facts behind Sixsmith’s book as well as the film, and anyone who wants to complain about spoilers can stuff it. The story is out there, the book was published in ’09…you can’t spoil a story that’s been widely absorbed for four years, and which has been Amazon’ed and Wikipedia’ed and discussed all to hell.
The bottom line is that Philomena is a film that despises the policies of the old-school Catholic church of Ireland and rightly so. Variety‘s Justin Chang called it “a howl of anti-clerical outrage wrapped in a tea cozy.”
I have an argument with two scenes that happen near the end of Philomena, and if you don’t want to hear about them stop reading…simple.
One is a scene in which Philomena and Martin are trying to speak to Hess’s former lover, some toney, countryfied beardo who’s apparently plugged into Washington circles. Except the guy keeps refusing to return Sixsmith’s phone calls because he’s been told, incorrectly and maliciously, that Hess’s mom had abandoned him as an infant, and so he’s consumed with anger for her. Well, that’s pretty damn stupid if you don’t mind my saying. The biological mother of your departed lover tries to get in touch and you won’t even speak to her? Not even to give her a piece of your mind? Not even to hear her say whatever she’s come to say for the sake of biology if nothing else? (You can always slam the door in her face after she says it.) The guy changes his mind, of course, when he learns the truth but it just feels insane and underbaked from an audience perspective for this dickhead to refuse to answer his door and threaten to call the police and all that crap. It’s incomprehensible behavior and therefore, I feel, bad writing.
The second bit happens at the end when Coogan’s Sixsmith righteously tells off the convent staffers and particularly the old crone who officiated over the selling of Philomena’s boy in the mid ’50s. In response Philomena, a kindly, faintly ditzy, less-than-sophisticated sort, shakes her head at Sixsmith’s judgmental manner (“It must be exhausting to be that angry,” she says) and offers forgiveness to the nuns who ordered the crime against she and her son. Coogan/Sixsmith is speaking blunt truth to power and he’s the bad guy? The nuns of the convent in Rosecrea did an absolutely hateful and fiendish thing and Dench forgives them? For what reason? How does it brighten the world or make it a kinder place to give these monsters a pass?
I was so enraged at this forgiveness scene that I decided that Philomena was a lesser film for it. Dench giving the nuns a pass gives “forgiveness” a really bad name. Thank God that people made of sterner stuff have stood up and told off and rebelled against the fiendish in similar moments of the past. Think of where we’d be if people of Dench’s mettle had prevailed and/or set the tone over the centuries when moral crimes and atrocities have been revealed. May the saints protect us from kindliness and turning the other cheek and “live and let live,” and particularly blind loyalty to the Catholic Church.