Guest review by SMH.
8 / 10
This is a good film. Naturally, that isn’t without its caveats, but it’s a tightly-written and well-executed account of forced adoptions in Ireland circa 1950s. It does well to remind you at the start that it is based on a true story. This curtails your ability to say that ‘surely nuns cannot be so diabolical’ because, well, they were. In establishing what this film is about, it has to be said that it is probably not your go-to film for date night or if you’re entertaining someone who was educated by the Sisters of (no) Mercy.
Dame Judi Dench is, as ever, effortless in her depiction of Philomena, who gets pregnant after ‘sinfully’ having hot sex with a man at a fairground out-of-wedlock (she literally drops a toffee apple in the passion). Promptly disowned by her parents, she is handed over to nuns at a convent which, for all intents and purposes, is run as a prison, minus the cool gangs and outdoors gyms. Her child is taken from her and, eventually, adopted/sold to some (it’s a British film, so, dastardly) Americans. Her story is picked up by Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, a recently fired political spin-doctor who reluctantly takes on Philomena’s story as a ‘human interest piece’ as a way to pick up his flagging career as a journalist. Coogan is brilliant as the cynical atheist, who moves subtly from the defensive, insecure, brattish former media man to caring about Philomena, her story and its outcome. The two of them take on the task of tracking down the child that was taken from Philomena, and in the process, uncovering the story of her child’s life.
It’s a rocky road, and look, if I am honest, it is not a film which ends with a Hollywood pleasant resolve (due in no small part, I am sure, to the resilience of the British studios in anchoring the film to the source material). In dispensing with any attempt to gild the lily, the film gains an honest integrity which really makes the key moments work – you are left with a sense of real people being brought to life, rather than merely characters. The interplay between Coogan and Dench is excellent, and some of the highlights of the film are in the scenes which build the relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith. Philomena’s strong adherence to faith, contrasted against Sixsmith’s glib dismissive banter, is not an artificially constructed contrast. The film is a moving portrayal of these people from diverse backgrounds who separately, and collectively, grapple with the story of the life of this adopted child as revealed through each unfolding step. It is sad, in fact, sometimes it’s downright unbelievably cruel, and you move from misery, through the Kubler-Ross model, onwards towards what I can only describe as an uplifting hope.
Philomena is a woman who, having suffered so much, is unwilling to allow that experience to define her. Her defiance against any self-victimisation, her endless kindness and optimism, and ability to forgive, is a lesson to us all.