Philomena – Stephen Frears and Steve Coogan give us the chance to feel extremly comfortable. (Film Review)
Stephen Frears is hit and miss when it comes to female characters but Judi Dench isn’t – she was the female M for chrissakes – so to come at us with the strangely written, safely stereotyped Philomena Lee at the end of a career that saw her totally own female characters like Lady Catherine deBurgh, Mrs Fairfax, Barbra Covett, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth the first, Queen Victoria, Nora Doel and the utterly delicious Eleanor Lavish, is a rather crushing disappointment to those of us who adore Judy Dench for her sterotype-defying ways. Judi Dench is that astoundingly rare creature in Hollywood, an actress who isn’t beautiful, never was beautiful, and yet fills the screen with her charisma, and sheer enormity of her talent. She’ll be eighty next year, but hopefully she has some solid acting years in her still (she was a campaigner for the decriminalization of drug use a year or so ago – so, you know) and Philomena will float into her history. I do not want this to be Judi Dench’s last film, not matter how much of a fine job she makes of it. (I have to add, Judi’s face is stunning in this film, and reminds me so much of Samuel Becketts at the end of his life)
Philomena is one of those films that pretends to sideswipe sentimentality but in fact rolls around in its way-to-many tear jerking torments. It’s beautifully shot, impeccably acted, nicely timed and respectful in an oscar-bait sort of way – the kind of respect that rewards you with a ham for your hard work. Thank god it’s well made, because its one of those films that was always going to be either astoundingly good or achingly bad, and even Dench couldn’t save it if it went south, but to Stephen Freares credit, and Steve Coogan’s (who wrote it with Jeff Pope) the little Irish touches (“I feel like the Pope” and “You have to pay for everything on Ryanair” etc) are stylistic perfections that do give Philomena a credible and intelligent edge. Saint Philomena was a virgin martyr. Philomena is based on a book, ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee’ by Martin Sixsmith which was focussed more on Anthony, the child Philomena lost, who turns out to be extraordinarily interesting. Bringing the focus back on the mother was a rather unusual choice and literally drags the film’s subject matter to the Magdalene Laundries, but not in a way that fully realises the horror and power of that (underrepresented) period in time, but rather easily piggy-backs on the fashionable resentment toward the Catholic Church, so it ends up revealing nothing new and indulges in an emphatic preaching to the converted, relying on a romantic assumption that the worst thing you can do to a female is take her child from her and the greatest crime in the history of the world is separating a child from its mother. I’m not saying the reverse of those statements is accurate, I’m saying they are easy subjects to treat with a consensus born of assumption and cultural comfort rather than fact.
What could save the film from this broad brush stroke approach to a deep, complicated subject, is the idea of the ‘Human Interest Story’ (capitals Intended) which is brought to life in a lovely but ultimately unfulfilled way, via the connection to Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan – who is so good in this film I felt attracted to him, when I never have before) is a serious journalist who “doesn’t do human interest stories”. This is a wildly interesting, underexplored idea, that Coogan almost gets right, by reverberating the intuitive, hard-won intellect of Lee against the bookish, competitive, career oriented intellect of Sixsmith. The idea of the human interest story is the most provocative aspect of the film, its central question being, Are they genuinely valuable or just mindless drivel (?), coming back to Philomena and how much we gain by getting close to this (potentially) fascinating woman whose suffering and simple life filled with self-imposed restraint has taught her many things (how to not fear homosexuality for one) and how she has forged her own set of principles she committedly lives by, regardless of her thinking every romance novel is fresh and interesting. Coogan, and Frears get close, really close to this genuinely stirring idea, (which could also have the meta aspect reflected in the style of film making) but they run from it in the latter part of the film, choosing to rely instead on the audiences passionate hatred of religion and love of a faux evolutionary concept about mothers and babies, that strips the film of anything remotely interesting and leaves it flailing in a narrative as predictable as Philomena’s love stories.
It’s such a shame, because what this does is transforms Philomena from an emblematic female who has the power to ‘explain’ the attraction to romance novels (what a power) into a dithering silly old woman, with insightful quirks (that even the brilliant Martin Sixsmith has learnt from you know) that shake a finger and remind us that everyone is precious, and may have had a difficult past, even when they appear old and silly. In fact, what it does is miss the point of Philomena entirely and make it strikingly obvious the woman’s lines were written by a man – I am sorry to use that cliché, but there it is. Philomena becomes just another woman altered for the comfort of populist perception, with all the interesting growth and transformation being left to the male in the unlikely couple, Martin Sixsmith. That Martin may have affected Philomena is impossible. That Philomena may have been radically transformed by discovering what happened to her son, is unimportant. Philomena is given that weird persona of the pedestal-balanced idiot who can’t properly articulate her position, but is almost angelic in her other-worldliness.
There is another tiny aspect of Philomena, that I will concede is very well written, acted and directed, and that is the vehement speech by Sister Hildegard (Barbara Jefford) laced with the resentment the church (Catholic here, but really this reaches broadly across all religions) has for females who enjoy sex. The story of the Magdalene Laundries needs a lot of films made about it, not just the very well done 2003 Peter Mullan vehicle, The Magdalene Sisters, because it is difficult to understand why the Catholic Church hates sexually active females, far more than it hates homosexuality or pedophilia. Sister Hildegarde’s speech, grounded in her resentment and her chastity is, as Woody Allen would say, the first novel, and the sequel and the opera by Puccini. It’s so interesting, easily the greatest moment in Philomena, given its dues as the central climax, and in may ways the one small moment that saved Philomena for me from being just a cynical cry for Oscar gold-plated lead.
If you decide to see Philomena, at least you can be sure of having a good time. It’s built for that.