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Mother’s life of searching

PHILOMENA: Starring Judi Dench, Steve Coogan and Anna Maxwell Martin. Directed by Stephen Frears. Rated M (Coarse language and mature themes). 98 min.

Reviewed Peter W.  Sheehan

THIS British film is based on the 2009 book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, which tells the true story of a 50 year-long search for her son by Philomena Lee, an elderly Irish woman wanting to discover what happened to the child that was taken from her, decades before.

It won the award for best screenplay at the 2013 Venice International Film Festival.

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is a journalist who lost his job under a cloud of scandal as an Advisor to the Blair Government in the United Kingdom. At a party, he meets Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), the daughter of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who has just been told by her mother that she gave birth to a son in Ireland 50 years earlier.

Initially thinking his journalistic skills lie above human-interest stories, Martin nevertheless agrees to meet Philomena, and starts to investigate what happened to her son.

In the 1950s, Philomena gave birth to Anthony, out of wedlock, in a Catholic convent for wayward girls in Roscrea, County Tipperary, Ireland, and was forced to sign away her rights to her child. Martin learns in the course of his investigations that Anthony was sold by the nuns for adoption to a couple in the United States who gave him another identity. Working with his network in the US, he finds that Anthony eventually became a high-ranking official in the Bush and Reagan administrations, and had died of AIDS.

Philomena finds out through her son’s gay partner that Anthony was trying to discover her identity, but the nuns lied to him to hide what happened and they lied to her. Anthony’s dying wish was to be buried in the convent’s graveyard and the film ends by Philomena forgiving those responsible for what happened and silently reading the inscription on her son’s grave.

Dench is gregarious, over-talkative, compellingly ordinary, and loves cheap food and romantic fiction. Coogan is cynical, distant in his interactions with others, sarcastic, and condescending. She is a fervent Catholic, and he is an ex-Catholic who has turned atheist. They are divided by social class and faith in God.

Although the film is essentially a drama about the scandal of forced adoptions in the Irish Catholic Church, both Dench and Coogan imbue their performances with insight, tenderness and intimate attention to detail.

The movie treads the line brilliantly between comedy and tragedy. Though heavily critical of the Irish Church, the movie manages to stay respectful of people’s faith in God. One expects to see a heavy social-realist dramatic treatment of events in this movie, but Dench and Coogan give the story a light touch which serves to make the telling of awful events tolerable.

Stephen Frears brings his own original touch to the movie by revealing what happened both through a cynical disbeliever and a mother traumatised by the loss of her son.

Neither Philomena nor Martin is changed by the other. Martin remains cynical, and Philomena stays trusting, but both grow to be bonded powerfully by the story that unfolds. Philomena’s faith empowers her, and Martin comes to understand why.

Coogan’s performance as the journalist is a tour-de-force of how well humane concern and cynicism can mix together, and Dench conveys her steadfast faith in religion and caring for her lost child magnificently. It is entirely due to Philomena’s faith that she forgave what the Irish Church did to her son, but the film also tells us compellingly, that wronged again and again, Philomena never ceased to care deeply about the welfare of the child who was taken from her.

This is a film that is an unsentimental story of tragic events, and it takes us unpretentiously on a journey that is enriching. Not without controversy in the way that convent attitudes are portrayed in the film, the film is a compelling indictment of the conduct of the Church at the time. But also, through Philomena’s and Martin’s exposure to great sadness, it is also a moving tribute to personal growth.

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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