By Viv Mah.
I’m not overly fond of babies. Wee, wandering, sluggish things, they have a habit of dribbling trouble after them where they go. (And we’re not speaking of just the waste here, either.) It goes without saying that I harbour a certain level of apprehension for film narratives that circle around the cloying, sentimental drain that is love lost and love refound.
Thankfully, Philomena is not one of these films.
With the plot pulled straight from Sixsmith’s 2009 book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the titular Philomena’s haunted by regret and a thinning understanding of what comprises her ‘greater sin’ in the eyes of religion. Cradling a glass of wine, she confesses to her daughter that she was forced to give up her bastard son by the Roscrea convent fifty years ago. Born out of wedlock, she’s been forced to care for the boy for the first three years of his life while she serves out a term of indentured labour, though he’s ripped from her without a chance for the pair to say goodbye. The quiet heartbreak on Dench’s face as she relates this secret — not in an explicit statement, but in dodging around the subject, as comes to be an endearing habit of the film’s — is testament alone to her years of service in entertainment, and more importantly, in-film, is rationale enough for Philomena’s daughter to go in search of a journalist to assist the family in finding Philomena’s missing son. Who they pluck out of the field, however, is Philomena’s necessary foil: disgraced ex-Labour government advisor and currently adrift journalist, Martin Sixsmith. Played by the film’s co-writer, Steve Coogan, he’s a snobbish, adrift, socially-at-odds juxtaposition of the modern against Philomena’s doddering and fondness for romances. While he’s at first disinclined to take up Philomena’s cause, he needs work and the story she relates has plenty of potential. The streamlined script makes little of Sixsmith’s choices in regards to assisting Philomena, nor emphasises his shifts of heart; life, the film decides, moves in small acts, and a grounded Coogan is similarly restrained. Dench, as Philomena, is effortlessly light; for all her trials, it’s almost impossible to ignore her stern-lipped wonder at the world, and her quiet determination to assimilate it. She’s just as much a crackerjack as her snappish companion though: while the fondness for romance novels and naivety towards the world is irritating, she’s unafraid to call Sixsmith out on his behaviour.
In many ways the pair are evocative of buddy cops, though they trade in their punchy, quirky exchanges for dry, philosophical musing that runs far deeper than stock comic fare.
But it’s difficult to feel settled throughout viewing Philomena. Little instances jar and grate. Characters pause a moment too long before they respond. They grieve privately and openly, with the lack of a soundtrack a reminder of the audience’s play as voyeur. The nuns who sanctioned the sale of Philomena’s baby boy, Anthony, straddle an unmarked void between the sympathetic and not: while they offer the leading pair tea and cake upon their first visit, they’ve no further information to provide Philomena with. In hotel rooms, the light’s too bright. There are too many people in the room. There are too little people in the room. Anticipated moments don’t fall where they may. Greater issues to grapple with: repressed sexuality for the sake of politics and long-running prejudices in these institutions, as well as the Church, are often only glanced across. While the film doesn’t trek down the regular, beaten path of cloying affections — though I’ll leave you to discover Philomena Lee’s tale — it’s the actors that truly elevate a quiet script and a familiar cinematic screen to something of truly affecting worth.
At it’s core, Philomena’s a discussion of convictions. Sixsmith lacks one. Philomena is powered by hers, both little and great. And perhaps, much like the looping photo-footage fantasies we witness on Philomena’s behalf, these convictions are empty or fruitless, but there’s a certain fictional allure to each quest we attempt to embark upon.
There are other things that the writers try to mention here too, but they tiptoe around the edge of faith without ever properly confronting questions of sin or sexuality or how one might find salvation.
Rather, the ambiguous concept of faith to this fictionalised version of Philomena and Sixsmith is like their image of Anthony.
They’ll get a flash of him here or there, an understanding. And then just as swiftly, the film says that the treasure hunt’s over, said figure’s yanked away and we and they are to be left with the satisfaction of having come close; of having gained a personal interpretation and intimacy with benevolence.
Which, in all honesty, is not that bad either.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.