Sunday, October 20, 2013

'Philomena' (2013) directed by Stephen Frears

Nuns make great baddies.  A scowling, pinched face peering out from the billowing black mass of their habits screams volumes about oppressive, cranked-up sexual-religious misery without a word being uttered.  A sinister Mother Superior administering a crack of the whip and a thump on the knuckles can be as terrifying as any nightmare creature lurking in the shadows.  Philomena has some outstandingly evil nuns; their scariness underlined by the fact that this is a true story.

Philomena tells the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench).  We first meet her as a giddy girl enjoying a funfair.  She flirts with a boy, and soon the two are kissing passionately as a toffee apple falls to the floor. Cut to 9 months later and Philomena's pregnant belly.  Being an unmarried teenage Mum in 1950s Ireland meant you were in for some astonishingly barbaric treatment.  Philomena is imprisoned to a country convent and effectively enslaved for three years.  After a traumatic, unanaesthetised breech birth she gives birth to a son, Anthony. He's kept in a nursery, the Church granting her contact with him for one hour a day.  For her indecency Philomena is branded a moral degenerate: a wild slut, a dirty whore, a sexual harridan - beyond retribution, fallen and rotten to the core.

But these religious eyes have greed glinting within, they have full control of a precious resource - babies.  So, any Catholic that stumps up a fat wodge of cash can buy a baby, carting it off around the world into a new life - the traumatised birth mother left behind for a lifetime of guilt, grief and Church-imposed shame.  And so Baby Anthony is parcelled off to parts unknown, leaving Philomena racked with misery in her old age, tortured by thoughts of how her baby's life turned out.  He could have been shot to bits in Vietnam or be a homeless man lying in a cold alley, unloved, desperate and dying, a life lived without knowing that there was somebody out there that loved him.

Landing square in the middle of this misery is Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan).  He's a disgraced spin doctor, sacked from government for "something he didn't even say".  He wants to head back into the world of writing and has vague, directionless plans to publish a book about Russian history.  He's aloof and rather snooty, the epitome of the urbane metropolitan intellectual.  Human interest stories are beneath him, thought of as syrupy sweet grief porn devoid of substance.  Even so, he's in need of a project, so with a vague embarrassment he begins to work with Philomena, the two setting out to find out exactly what happened in the Magdalene asylum and whatever became of baby Anthony.

I've got to admit, I shared Sixsmith's reservations about this material, it sounded a bit glurgish; achingly worthy material that should be issued with pre-moistened hankies. Thankfully, Frears consciously elevates the material above weeper-of-the-week rainy day material with an iron grip on his message and a slow-burning white-hot anger at the crimes committed by the Catholic Church.  

It probably goes without saying, but Judi Dench gives a top-notch performance, effortlessly surmounting every emotional peak -nakedly emotional and reflexively honest.  Throughout the film Philomena both confounds and confirms our stereotypes of what a little old Irish lady should be like - one moment launching into a headache inducingly dull description of the ins and outs of a Mills and Boon romance novel and the other displaying an unexpected frankness when talking about sex.  In practically every scene Dench pulls something out of her hat to surprise us, moving the character way past simple, wounded martyrdom and into a likeable, intelligent and unshakably moral pillar.

Though Philomena is the centre of the film, it wouldn't work without Coogan's excellent Sixsmith, who functions as a subtle straight-man to Dench and the mouthpiece for the audience's thoughts.  Coogan has had a busy year in film, going from broad comedy in Alpha Papa to sleazy 70s pornography in The Look of Love and finally a crusading yet cynical journalist here.  Though I loved Alpha Papa, his turn in Philomena is the best straight performance I've ever seen from Coogan.  His usual tendency is play slightly veiled versions of himself, but here he vanishes into the role.  Coogan co-wrote the screenplay, so his character's anger at Philomena's situation feels borne of genuine outrage.

Refreshingly, the film doesn't pull any punches when it comes to dealing with the moral and spiritual catastrophe that is the Catholic Church.  Shears carefully sets up a dichotomy between the Christian values of love and forgiveness embodied by Philomena and the authoritarian sadism of the church.  It's nice to see a film that doesn't sit on the fence and  as Frears painstakingly reconstructs the events of Philomena's life, he inexorably leads us to a pinnacle of outrage that we reach at precisely the same time as Coogan's Sixsmith.  

Philomena also impresses in cinematic terms.  This is a small, personal story, yet has been shot with careful attention to colour and shot composition.  It's pretty from start to finish, and from small beginnings in London high society, travels far and wide, rural Ireland looking stark, forbidding and majestic, the weather subtly shifting as the narrative develops - ending on a beautiful snowy monochrome winterscape.

This isn't a big, showy film - it works best in the small personal moments between Coogan and Dench; two unhurried detectives working their way towards surprising and shocking conclusions.  This slice of life stuff usually isn't my cup of tea, and if I hadn't been sent review tickets I might not have bothered to see Philomena.  I'm exceptionally glad I did, Frears, Coogan and Dench have created a warmly funny, intelligent and emotional experience, one powered by an iron core of righteous fury.  Highly recommended.

Philomena is on general release from 1st November.

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