November 22, 2013
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Review by Justin Spencer

  • Stephen Frears is no Oliver Stone or Aaron Sorkin. His latest film, Philomena, like The Queen before it, is blissfully absent of soap box preaching. Given the material Frears is working with, that's a extraordinary feat, exuding a generosity worthy of the film's main character, Philomena Lee.

    Based loosely on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film centers around actual events of the 1950's and 60's in Ireland, at which time it was a secret but common practice for Catholic charities to sell the children of single, unmarried mothers who had come to them for aid to wealthy Americans. The exact number of such children is not known, but most reports I've seen have it in the thousands.

    Obviously, there are quite a few opportunities for exaggerated mud-slinging.

    Quite a few critics, not surprisingly, have voiced their opinion that such is the case. Kyle Smith of the New York Post opined that, "There's no other purpose to the movie" than "a true-life tale that would enable [Frears and Steve Coogan] to simultaneously attack Catholics and Republicans."

    Such a reading is an understandable but also a knee-jerk reaction to the perception that Hollywood has it out for Christians and Republicans, one which, in this case, the real Philomena felt the need to refute. In an open letter to Mr. Smith, she wrote, "You are entitled to an opinion of course, as we all are. Just as I forgave the church for what happened with my son, I forgive you for not taking the time to understand my story. I do hope though that the families heading to the movie theatre to see the film decide for themselves – and disagree with you."

    Philomena is the furthest film possible from an angry and bitter denunciation of Christianity. It is, rather, a lovely and compassionate exploration of the love shared between a mother and child, and one of the clearest expositions of forgiveness I've seen put down on film. If it has any critiques on the church or Republicans, they are allowed to be organic within the story, not artificially added to it. In leaving such judgements to his audience, Frears deserves credit, as many other directors would have chosen to make a documentary of abuses instead of a film about people.

    The story centers around an aging Irish woman, Philomena Lee (played masterfully by Judi Dench), and her search for a long-lost son. Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a cynical Atheist and diplomat-turned-journalist, decides to write a "human interest" story about Philomena's experience. The short column eventually balloons into a piece of investigative journalism involving a search across two continents and a massive scandal which lay hidden for fifty years.

    Philomena, while a young woman, had become pregnant by a man whom she met at a fair. Being a single woman, she had nowhere to turn but the church, in this case a convent in Ireland. The nuns at the convent were less than compassionate, making her work the most menial of jobs for years as an act, they said, of penance for her sin. She was allowed to see her son only one hour per week. The convent itself was gated and locked, resembling a jail more than a house of sanctuary.

    One day, a wealthy couple arrived from America to adopt one of the children, in this case a young girl who was also the companion of Philomena's son, Anthony. After seeing the way the two children played together, the American couple chose to take both. Philomena was understandably heartbroken at having her son taken from her so suddenly and without her knowledge. To this heartbreak, most of the nuns responded with nothing but scorn. There was no pity and certainly no explanation. One in particular, Sister Hildegarde, was especially harsh.

    After learning of Anthony's fate, the lies told to Philomena by the nuns at the convent, and their reprehensible lack of charity shown both to Philomena and countless other young women, Sixsmith confronts Sister Hildegarde, who is now very old, hunched in a wheel chair. To his rebuke, she replies, "I have kept my vow of chastity my whole life. Self denial and mortification of the flesh, that’s what brings us closer to God...Those girls have nobody to blame but themselves, and their own carnal incontinence...Their suffering was atonement for their sins."

    In many ways, the situation is directly comparable to Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Both young women, caught in the consequences of sexual sin, are shunned by the very people who ought to show the most compassion. They are no longer valued as worthy of dignity or respect, no longer seen as people made in the image of God who ought to be treated in accordance with love and charity. What is extraordinary about the character of Philomena when compared with Hester, however, is that she keeps her faith in spite of experience. She sees the true nature of God in the love she has for her son that remains powerful, almost fundamental to her being, even though they are separated.

    In the opening scene, Philomena is contemplating motherhood and the love of a lost child by looking at a statue of Madonna and Child in a church. She is finding solace, I have no doubt, in the fact that Mary also knows what it is like to lose a son. Further, the object of her contemplation represents a compassion altogether missing in those who were tasked with tangibly showing that compassion in the world. One might expect, as Sixsmith does throughout the film, that such a misrepresentation would cause Philomena to be bitter, to tear in tatters any remnant of her faith. But she does not. "Let God be true, but every man a liar," St. Paul says. Philomena has taken that to heart. Because she has understood that truth, she knows that any anger or retribution taken out on the nuns would simply perpetuate a Christianity that is not consistent with Christ or Mary's example, nor her love for her lost child.

    In the end, Philomena forgives Sister Hildegarde. She says, after Hildegarde has angrily defended her actions from Sixsmith's attack, "I want you to know that I forgive you." What follows after is absolutely fascinating. We see three different reactions to the situation: the cynical Atheist, the hypocrite, and the Christian. Which is the most admirable?

    Hildegarde turns away with a grunt, clearly embarrassed and better able to handle Sixsmith's rebuke than Philomena's forgiveness. Sixsmith looks shell-shocked. "What?" he says, "Just like that?"

    Philomena responds testily with tears in her eyes, "It's not 'just like that'! It's hard. It's a hard thing to do. I don't want to hate people. Look at you. I don't want to be like you."

    "I'm angry," responds Sixsmith.

    Philomena says, "I know. It must be exhausting."

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  • Release Date
    November 22, 2013
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