It was only a few days ago that Lindsay and I were discussing religion and identity. Namely, what happens to a person who defines themselves by their religion, then suffers a blow that runs counter to their belief? The example I used was my Grandmother, a woman who chose to define herself as a Catholic. When her son committed suicide, she was faced with a very difficult decision, go on identifying as a Catholic—even if that meant damned her son to hell for committing a mortal sin or cast off her beliefs and save her son’s soul. The very definition of “a crisis of faith.” My uncle committed suicide over a decade ago, and I haven’t spoken with my Grandmother about her beliefs since, but I do know that she continues to go to church, pray, and believe. I do not know her personal motivation, but I recently saw a movie that depicts and illuminates this very crisis. I’m talking about Philomena, and it’s one of the best movies I saw at the Starz Denver Film Festival.
Philomena is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, a woman who was separated from her son as a teenager and spent her entire life thinking of him and praying for his safety. Playing Philomena is Judi Dench (Sophie Kennedy Clark in flashbacks), and I cannot think of anyone else I would rather watch doing so. Dench is an actress of the highest order, one who has aged with grace, and in Philomena, she lets ever wrinkle and crease tell a story. A picture is worth a thousand words, but Dench’s face might be worth a million. Most actors act, but it is the great ones that make you believe, and Philomena is a movie that really needs the audience to believe. To believe that Philomena can actually summon up forgiveness from the bottom of her heart and hand it over to the person who cut her the deepest. If the actress simply says the words, “I forgive you,” the moment loses all impact, and the movie crumbles. Not with Dench at the helm. With Dench, that moment becomes the movie, quite possibly the reason the movie yearned to be made in the first place.
The other hand in Philomena is journalist and disgraced advisor to the Labour party, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan—who also co-wrote and co-produced the movie). While trying to get back in the good graces of his former employers and everybody else, he runs into Philomena’s daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell-Martin), at a party. Jane drops the logline of the movie right into Martin’s empty lap: a young girl gives birth to a child, has it taken from her for adoption, and then tells no one for 50 years. Martin is reluctant to take on a human-interest story, but he needs a story, and Philomena has one hell of a story. Martin meets with Philomena and gathers the basic information: she met a boy at a carnival, slept with him, gave birth to the child in the convent, and then worked off the medical cost in the laundry room of the convent. She (and other girls in similar situations) were allowed to see her son a few hours a day until the day he was adopted by an American couple and taken away without saying goodbye. Flash-forward 50 years and Philomena simply cannot keep the secret to herself any longer. She wants to know if Anthony ever thought of his mother because she thought of him every single day.
Martin and Philomena return to the convent in hopes of finding some answers but come up empty-handed. The nuns at Roscrea aren’t helpful, but Martin and his editor know that good ending or bad, this will make for a compelling story. The two are sent packing to Washington D.C., where they uncover a great deal about Anthony, eventually leading them back to where they began. The search for Anthony is the MacGuffin. What is most important is what we learn about Martin and Philomena. Martin is down and out, cynical, and cranky. Compared to Philomena, he’s far too lucky and far too young to be as cantankerous as he is. You could say that Martin is us on a bad day, and we have been having far too many of those lately. Philomena isn’t the other side of the coin, or on the other hand, she is a different person entirely. She is a modern-day saint. I couldn’t help but wonder what Roberto Rossellini would have thought of her. She is honest, frank, and full of life. She fills herself more with forgiveness than she does with anger. She tells people that they are “One in a million,” converses with cooks and waitresses as if they are (shock) real people, and finds no end of amusement in the sillier things in life. Watching her giggle while she describes the plot to Big Momma’s House not only made me want to watch it but love it totally. Everyone deserves a Philomena in his or her life.
Teachers have a habit of appearing when the student is ready. Philomena has a lot in her life to resolve, but it is Martin who really needs guidance and answers. Philomena enters his life with more than enough wisdom to dole out, and it will be Martin who has to evolve and change by the end of this story. In Martin, we see the modernist opinion of tragedy and those that cause it: incredulity, anger, and vehemence. How dare they do this and call themselves Christian! “If Jesus was here today, he would tip you out of that fucking chair,” Martin sneers at the ever-righteous Sister Superior. How appropriate those words seem to the situation. Yet, what right does Martin have to this outrage? The loss of this child is not his pain, this is not his burden, and this is most certainly not his place. This scene, this moment belongs to Philomena, and the course she takes is the Christian course and forgives. She admits that it is not an easy choice to make and that it hurts, but she forgives because that is what good Christians do. Philomena’s identity is her belief, an identity she holds true to.
I am a moviegoer and a very devout one at that. I love watching tricks and illusions on the screens before me. Sleight of hand, clever editing, virtuosic images, bombastic camera movements, they are my bread and butter. Director Stephen Frears does none of that. That is why he is a great director. Frears, much like Hawks, uses an almost invisible filmmaking style. Shots are primarily eye-level, the lighting is clear, and the editing is analytical. All the visual information is clear and precise. It almost feels like Frears does what he can to get out of the way and let the performers do what they do best. However, it takes a great deal of effort to appear effortless. Phil Jackson didn’t win eleven NBA championships by simply sitting on the sidelines and watching his team play. He won them by working hard to disappear into the team, letting the energy of the game motivate the ball here and there. That is exactly what Frears does. He is the invisible hand moving everything along at just the right moment—a complete antithesis to The King’s Speech from a few years ago, where Tom Hooper was anything but invisible. Apparently, he wasn’t sure that the story and performances would be enough and designed an awful lot of “artistic” shots to make it visually interesting. Frears knows better. He knows that we have come to watch Judi Dench and Steve Coogan do what Dench and Coogan do best. He knows that as this story progresses, we will become more and more invested in the characters and emotions. He knows that by keeping his camera out of the action, we will insert our emotions. He knows a great deal about making a movie, and in Philomena, it really shows.
Directed By: Stephen Frears
Written By: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope Based on the book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith
Produced By: Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward, Gabrielle Tana
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Anna Maxwell Martin
The Weinstein Company, Running Time 98 minutes, Rated PG-13, Released November 22, 2013.