International slate, led by US communication expert Helen Osman, elected as officers of SIGNIS
UK, 2013, 95 minutes, Colour.
_ Judi Dench, Steve Coogan,
_ Directed by Stephen Frears.
Melbourne, January 15, 2013 (Peter Malone) - Philomena is a good old-fashioned Catholic name, a bit like Christopher, names which derive from saints whose authenticity has been questioned. So, Philomena is an apt name for the central character who evokes a past Catholic Church, a strong and triumphant Church, which is now shaming so many Catholics around the world.
This film has subject material that has been brought up in many government enquiries, particularly in Ireland where the key action of this film takes place. The fate of unmarried and pregnant young women in Ireland was often a kind of internment in institutions run by sisters, using the young women as Magdalenes in their laundries. Films which dramatised these situations include The Magdalene Sisters and the telemovie, Sinners.
This is a reminder that the Catholic Church has been criticised in a number of films, especially in the context of clerical sexual abuse. Catholics are being asked to examine the conscience of the Church and acknowledge more sinfulness than they might have imagined in years gone by. Whatever the stance of Philomena , it contributes to this examination of conscience.
The challenge of the film will be more extensive than others since it stars the ever-popular Judi Dench as Philomena and she gives one of her best performances, already nominated for awards. Philomena is getting widespread distribution.
Older Catholics, especially in English-speaking countries, could recount similar stories to those in the film: harsh attitudes towards these young women, severe and authoritarian behaviour of nuns and clergy. But, so many Catholics, while decrying this behaviour, remained steadfast in their faith - as does Philomena Lee, the actual subject of the film.
And the film itself.
It was written by Steve Coogan, best known as a comic performer and writer, himself an ex-Catholic portraying journalist, Labour government adviser, Martin Sixsmith (also ex-Catholic), who worked with Philomena Lee in the search for the son who was suddenly taken from her when he was about six. While Coogan has written all the anti-Catholic comments in the film and Sixsmith demands an apology from Sister Hildegarde, morally intransigent in her attitudes towards the young women, declaring that they deserve their pain and suffering for their immoral behaviour, Coogan has devoted his energies to this story. (There is dramatic licence here since the actual Sister Hildegarde was dead.)
Audiences can forget that it was Coogan who also wrote the faith statements of Philomena as well as her criticisms of Sixsmith's anger and seeming bitterness.
Judi Dench perfectly embodies Philomena, now elderly, a former nurse, who signed a document of silence about what happened to her and her son. She is a simple woman, not so quick on jokes, loves to recount the plots of Mills and Boons type novels. Martin Sixsmith decides to investigate where the boy might have been taken - which leads to the US.
The search is a blend of hope and disappointment, finally reaching a sad solution, once again highlighting the cruel decisions of the sisters concerning concealing information from Philomena and her son.
While the performances are powerful and the subject so serious, there is a great deal of humour (like the bit in the trailer where Philomena refuses a drink on British Airways, Martin telling her that it is free and she relenting, remarking that you have to pay for everything on Ryanair).
The director is the prolific Stephen Frears, a master of all kinds of genre. His other film with Catholic themes is Liam, a story of Catholics in Liverpool in the 1930s, written by Jimmy McGovern.
Both Liam, in 2000, and Philomena, 2013, won the SIGNIS award at the Venice Film Festival.