January 5, 2014 5 Comments

I had not planned to see Stephen Frear’s “Philomena.”

The trailer, which played for months, showed Judi Densch and Steve Cooper teamed up in a sort of odd-ball Irish road movie that seemed to enjoy the “inside joke” of elderly frumpy meeting  sarcastic witty way more than I thought that I would.

But it was directed by Stephen Frears (The Grifters, Dangerous Liasons, High Fidelity, Liam, The Hi-Lo Country, My Beautiful Laundrette, Dirty Pretty Things AND The Queen), whose movies have moved me in many ways over the years with his  uncanny  ability to morph himself to the needs of the story he is telling.   So, why was I rolling my eyes at this one?

Where was my faith?  (I guess that is also part of the story).

Philomena is the story (based on the novel by Martic Sixsmith) of a young pregnant Irish girl  sent to the nuns (called Magdalene Laundries) to repent and work off her sin of “carnal knowledge”.   Philomena is  ultimately forced to give up her toddler son and spends the next 50 years trying desperately to find some shred of information about him.  Did he EVER think of her??? Coogan(who also co-wrote the screenplay) plays Sixsmith, who reluctantly and then manipulatively agrees to “tell” Philomena’s story.  Frears miraculously (pun intended) avoids maudlin sentimentalism or coy elitistism and permits the relationship between our two protagonists to unfold with honesty and genuine feeling.  There are twists and turns. There are hints of preachiness, but Frears avoids unbearable sanctimony.   There ARE villians, but he avoids condemning women like Philomena who continued to believe despite the cruelty endured.

This is not “just” an Irish story or a round of Catholic bashing, although the shame of such a system is palpable throughout the film.  It is also the American/Washington story of our attitude about AIDS, which produced its own share of unnecessary misery and death.

Judi Densch is wonderful and although her verbal prattle seems a bit cutesy and contrived at times, she communicates a depth and range of emotion unflinchingly with her eyes.

Frear’s cinematic eye immerses us in the beauty of the Irish countryside before transporting us (like Philomena’s son) on a virgin (yes another intentional pun) journey to Washington DC.

I’m avoiding as many spoiler pitfalls as I can.


Jolyn Wagner

Must See Movie of the Week
5 Comments to “Philomena”
  1. Bruce Russell says:

    Many years ago Larry Thomas, a philosopher at Syracuse University, gave a paper at Wayne State on the question of whether some actions are unforgivABLE, that is, SHOULD NOT be forgiven. This film raised this question for me again.I’m also puzzled whether it is consistent to admire someone who forgives someone who has wronged her terribly when you think that what that person has done is unforgivABLE.

  2. What I liked (among many other things) about this film is that (SPOILER ALERT) Steve Coogan’s character equally proclaims that he WILL NOT CANNOT AND DOESN’T even WANT to forgive the heinous cruel misguided behaviors of the nuns. It is treated as an equally just choice.
    I like that because it adds complexity and doesn’t preach to us about the “correct” action

  3. Bruce Russell says:

    Yes, some people can’t, won’t, and don’t want to forgive. Others can, will, and want to forgive. These are all psychological facts, facts about a person’s desires and abilities. The question I’m interested in, and that I think the film raises, is normative: SHOULD Philomena forgive the nuns? I’m inclined to think that she SHOULD NOT, though I forgive her her wrongdoing! -:)

  4. moviedoc says:

    “Forgiveness is the best form of self-interest, holding a grudge is bad for your health” – Desmond Tutu
    “Forgiving is not for sissies, Forgiveness is for the strong!” – Desmond Tutu

  5. Cristina Pappageorge says:

    I felt similar to Bruce when I first saw the film. Having been born Catholic I knew of instances of miserably rotten nuns & clergy(and great ones-Bishop Fulton J. Sheen & Mother Theresa). Heinous, was the word for Sister Hildegard. “I” would Never forgive her. Philomena, I think, needed to get that episode off her plate-for HER well-being. I thought she was SIMPLE until she said –to ‘proceed with the article, people need to know what happened here’. Philomena had kept her secret for 50yrs for fear of being condemned by those she loved. Her daughter had embraced her instead with her forgiveness. From receiving that Forgiveness, she had the ability to give it to someone who ,in her mind, was as Fallen as herself. In my opinion, you can forgive Evil, But, you also have a duty to STOP it if you can. Forgive yet don’t forget and don’t stand by with no action on your part. Philomena, in the end, was not a victim, she was an advocate for change and still naive but certainly not SIMPLE. Love had strengthened her–and all was RIGHT in her world.

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