Directed by Stephen Fears
Philomena is a gut-wrenching story of forgiveness. It’s one of those tales that gives you a clear villain, and while that may come off as reductive, it certainly demands the right emotional reaction from the audience. That villain here is Sister Hildegarde, and because this is based on a true story part of me doesn’t want to believe that character could be as sinister as she appears in this movie. A 2007 documentary, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters benefits from the same kind of clear hero and clear villain balance. That was the story of a very real event and very real characters, though of course like any movie (documentary or otherwise) there is room to speculate about the subjectivity involved.
Philomena (Judi Dench) observes the 50th birthday for a son she had as a teenager and never told her daughter about. Flashbacks show us the years Philomena spent in a convent during which time she conceived a child after a one night fling and for which she was punished by Sister Hildegarde.
The convent ran a nursery where Philomena’s son Anthony remained until he was adopted by an American family. It’s only fifty years later, with the help of an entitled, disgraced journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), that Philomena learns the convent was selling the children to the highest bidder.
Martin approaches this situation with more than a little reservation. It’s nothing more than a human interest story, but because he was recently let go by the BBC he doesn’t have much choice but to accept what falls into his lap. After all no one seems all that interested in his book on Russian history.
Because this is a movie, you know that the story begins to unravel once Martin dives in. He becomes involved and attached to the story in a way he would’ve initially looked down upon, becoming another enraptured observer to a story that challenges one’s faith. That’s because this is another story of the Catholic Church doing some awful things. Like with the subject of 2015’s Spotlight and the news in general, this is a story about people in positions of power preying on those beneath them.
It’s disturbing, horrific and leads to a poignant final moment. Martin reacts to all this madness the way you or I might, but Philomena doesn’t. This is still her story, and her perspective, her extreme faith, is not to be ignored.
Late in the movie Martine expresses his absolute disgust with Sister Hildegarde and, you get the sense, the idea of organized religion as a whole. He can’t believe what they’ve done, not only in selling away the children but so too in lying about it, having burned records which obstruct Philomena’s search for her adult son.
Martin’s character arc is to become outraged because it shows that he cares about the people behind this human interest story. Starting as an objective, jaded journalist, he sees the story as nothing more than a potential way back into the industry, but by the end he is so furious that he offers to abandon the publication of the story as a whole.
But for Philomena, her arc is to take a step back and forgive all of those involved. As she tells Martin, this happened to her, so if anyone has the right to be outraged, it would be her. Her explicit forgiveness of Sister Hildegarde feels like a burn, and it is, but the people who get to enjoy this burn are Martin and the audience. This is Philomena’s way of telling off the story’s villain, but it only feels that way to us. There is no vengeance or vitriol in Philomena’s words. She has accepted what happened and pardoned the ones who did it to her.
We are made to admire her faith and in a sense to admire those who have faith while questioning those who manipulate such a steadfast belief in something greater than themselves. Maybe the world, in this particular simplification, can be broken into two camps: those looking for answers, and those who pretend to have them.
Based on what I’ve written maybe you can surmise that there is no conventionally happy ending to Philomena’s and Martin’s search. They find the answers, but the lack of concrete joy at the end of the journey forces them to turn inward, to find meaning in what has happened and what they have endured.
This is in many ways a road trip story, full of unexpected comedy and wholesome moments bridging a generational gap. As you can tell by the movie’s poster, the two main characters bond in a way Martin certainly never could have imagined, and the movie earns its ending, one that in other hands might feel contrived.
Philomena is sincere, funny and powerful. This is the first time I’ve seen the movie, but I read the screenplay on my phone in the middle of the night in the middle of a country field back in March of 2014. I was conducting an experiment, a time-lapse of the night sky. Because the necessary exposure for such a setting is 20-30 seconds per image, it took me around five hours to get twenty seconds of video. I stayed out there until past four in the morning, and though the video didn’t turn out exactly as I hoped, I spent a good chunk of that time squinting at my phone and falling for this story.
That old timelapse:
Up Next: Ready Player One (2018), The Plumber (1979), The Shooting (1966)