by Philip Price
Sometimes, in life, there are subjects and themes that float in and out of our existence and can define certain time periods of our life. Whether it is for the fact that many of the ideals and themes represented in “Philomena” are also present at this time of my life made this film hit closer to home than I ever expected or if it is simply because the story in which the film tells is so interesting and captivating that I was completely swept up in it, I can't tell. Either way, there is something about the latest from director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”, “High Fidelity”) in which I can't immediately put my finger on, but am unable to shake. While I went into the film unsuspecting of its charms or its narrative I'd heard nothing but pleasant things about it and that it was something of a delight given the chemistry between leads Steve Coogan and Judi Dench. The last thing I expected was the kind of mystery adventure I was taken on that allows faith, religion and the way we look at God and who he is, if he is, and how he manages to affect our happiness and outlook on life while bringing more meaning to the relationship between a mother and her estranged son. There are moments when this could have easily become a light, road trip comedy with the old lady getting on the younger, sophisticated man’s nerves while eventually coming to realize they have a true affection for one another that will allow this relationship to become a cherished friendship, but that isn't the route the film decides to take and thank God for that. Sure, there are moments, entire scenes even, where the content may suggest that is exactly where “Philomena” is headed, but another of the surprising things about the film is that it never goes exactly where you think it will. There are familiar situations and set-ups that could have easily gone a more predictable way, but ultimately the fact this is based on a true story allows it a stronger sense of truth and the way in which things unfold I can only imagine will be more satisfactory for most than if it ended with a convoluted twist that named Coogan's character as the son (of course that doesn't actually happen, but if you thought you had it figured out beforehand, you don't). While “Philomena” will fly under the radar for most, it is a film the whole family can enjoy while also stirring up interesting conversation afterwards.
Going into the film having no real idea of what it was about I was immediately struck by the strong Catholic influence contained even within the opening credits. Like both Coogan and Dench I was raised a Catholic and am still a practicing participant in the religion, though that is not to say I don't often question things the church does and what role faith and believing in an almighty being plays in my life. We meet our titular character as she visits the church late at night and is there to do nothing more than light a candle for her son on his birthday. It is not until she returns home and her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) asks why she is crying do we realize it is a son she has never known, that was taken away from her when he was very young and that his birthday today would have been his fiftieth. We are immediately intrigued, wondering what the story is here and why this seemingly sweet old Irish woman might no longer have contact with her son. The film nicely transitions between the present time (which is 2003 in this case) and the early ‘50s giving the viewer a clearer picture of Philomena's past and what brought about her pregnancy and what forced the separation upon her and her son. A young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) who presumably began living at a convent in order to become a nun let her guard down one night at a fair allowing an attractive young man to get closer with her than any of the sisters would approve of and she ended up pregnant. When such an event occurred the nuns would deliver the baby and if the mother survived she would continue working at the convent while they would offer up the babies for adoption. Philomena's young son, Anthony, was adopted along with a younger girl when he was only a young boy and was presumably taken to the United States. All these years later, his biological mother can't help but wonder if he is out there somewhere and if he is thinking about her as much as she is him. Enter Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a world-weary political journalist who has just lost his job due to a scandal he apparently had little to do with, but took the bullet regardless. Martin is looking for work, something that might get him back in the groove and the last thing he expects is a human interest story, but Philomena's is exactly what he gets.
The core of the film, for me, was the question of how strong is the bond between a mother and son, even two that had never met, and how deep does it run? It is not exclusively the fact of the relations, but the theme of connection that runs throughout the film. The kinds of connections we create with those around us and the connection we may or may not have with God. Coogan has a line early on in the film where he steps out of a church service early and when his wife (Simone Lahbib) steps out afterwards and asks him what's up he replies, "I don't believe in God and I think he knows it." Sure, that early into the film one might take it as just a sly bit of dialogue that won't amount to much in the overall arc of the story, but Coogan who also co-wrote and produced this project knew exactly what he was doing and the tone he was setting not only for his character, but for the state of his existence and how it might be equivalent to the state of his faith. I hate to keep using the word faith because it doesn't seem to fully capture the meanings and point I'm trying to make with it, but more it is how whether we choose to believe in a higher power that has control over our lives and allows everything to happen for a reason versus if we choose not to believe and how that shapes the general state of our lives. When religion is simply too hard to accept everyday feels like a constant struggle to find reason in living, in wondering if not these ancient religions Gods, than what? What more is there after life? Is there anything? If there isn't, what rules should I decide to abide by while I'm here on earth and which ones should I scrap and say, "to hell with it, it doesn't matter anyway." The film shows the two distinct sides of this conundrum by presenting us Philomena and Martin and sending them on a journey together that will ultimately allow each to see that it takes a little give and take from both ends of the spectrum to live a happy, yet stimulating life. The good news is that it doesn't come across as a preachy reasoning as to why you should or should not believe in God, but instead wraps these explorations of religion and the blind faith many believers can take on with the story of a woman finding not only her son, but a piece of her life she was likely yearning for to have peace in her life; a piece/peace her faith and the church took away from her and could never fill.
All of that feels as if it only scratches the surface of why I fell in love with the film. Much of the other appealing factors that inform the aforementioned themes and engaging story would be spoilers were I to mention them here, but while I don't want to give away anything here it should be enough to say that despite the almost corny vibe the film’s poster gives off, the actual tone and intent of the film is much more serious-minded, much more aware of what it is operating on and how it is conveying the story of this odd couple that while falling into familiar plot lines of teaching each other life lessons along the way, also learn a lot more about themselves purely from the situations and truths they find themselves coming face to face with. What makes the film's conventional premise and the expected tone that comes along with that work so well with the more serious themes it explores is the balance in the performances from our two leads as well as the skilled hand of director Frears who is able to weave back and forth between rather light comedy and very heavy, dramatic scenes with an unnoticeable ease.
Dench is absolutely wonderful here; her Philomena is so preciously daft in her eternal optimism it is impossible not to want to hug her. No matter how much the evidence continues to stack up against the church she looks for the only possible way in which they could have been looking out for her best interests. She is and has been trying all her life to please the church almost hoping in some way that if she continues to strive for what they think a respectful life should be she might alleviate the pain these backwards and brainwashed thoughts caused her in the first place. She fights internally with what sin was worse; having the child or lying to everyone about it the rest of her life. These are things Coogan's Martin can only comprehend as unbelievable. That a person would torment themselves over something because they are told its wrong and with further explanation. He begins asking the questions: why would God give us such desires only to force us to subdue them? Why must anything that feels so good be so wrong? They are rather funny in the context of the film, but they bring Philomena much pain as it is all she's ever known. Martin's cynicism and consistent pessimism towards anyone that he finds weak-minded, ignorant and vulnerable conveys the struggle within him that he can't help but to let loose when he finds himself in a situation where he feels superior in almost every way. Philomena's optimism matches this train of thought with a somehow higher-seeming knowledge though in that if she truly believes in God she can't place the blame on him for the misdirection and misinterpretation of man. All of this to say that no matter if you believe in God or not, or even if you believe in something as simple as hope or coincidence, it's that when we are done exploring (both the world and all the avenues of our minds) we will arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. T.S. Eliot sure knows how to make life conundrums feel a lot less complicated.