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Sins of the mother: Movie review of 'Philomena'

Movie Poster
The Weinstein Company

God bless the current Pope because heaven knows the Catholic Church has a lot of bad karma to work through. In the not so distant past in Ireland (as well as elsewhere) so-called “fallen women” had little recourse, especially if they were poor, but to head to a Magdalene Asylum/Institution/Laundry (named after that other Mary, the one who until recently was famous for not being a virgin). At these asylums the women could give birth to their illegitimate babies and work in an industrial laundry UNTIL said babes were given to wealthy couples OR for the rest of their lives depending on the whims of management. If you do not know much about these institutions the topic is worth a Wikipedia looky loo. The initial eighteenth century idea was for these places to provide rehabilitation for scarlet dipped damsels, but by the twentieth century several of the institutions became prisons where many women never left spending their lives doing hard labor – often described as slaves for the Catholic Church. The last Laundry closed in Ireland in 1996.

I know what you are thinking. Fun topic for a movie.

Philomena, based on a true story, was released in late November, which technically makes it a holiday film and we all know that holiday films tend to be of three distinct categories; family films, mafia movies, and open your veins and bleed out cinema. With the Academy Awards around the corner Hollywood likes to showcase its serious side even though that often leaves audiences with a lot less to HO-HO-HO about. Ergo I went to my local multiplex to see this film because I was interested in the topic matter not expecting it to be actually a feel good movie.

Much of the credit for Philomena has to go to Steve Coogan who is primarily known as a comedic performer. Coogan not only starred in the film but wrote and produced it. Although his character is not comedic fodder per se, Coogan adds humor to a man suffering an identity crisis started by a career crisis. I am normally not a fan of indecorous humor but within the first five minutes the word “outstanding” is used very effectively and all I can say is hats off to you Mr. Coogan for making that joke work and setting the audience at ease.

As a serious journalist Coogan’s Martin Smith is used to prestigious assignments from Moscow to Washington D.C. but now his BBC press credentials have been yanked and he is forced to take on human interest stories. He hears about Philomena from her daughter who is catering a cocktail party. Only hours before she learned her mother is depressed because fifty years before she had given birth to a son who was taken from her at the age of three and sent to America. Philomena has made several visits through the years to the convent to see if the nuns had any information they could give her about her boy who was sent a world away, but it is always the same.

Judi Dench gives Philomena believable sweetness along with a steel backbone and forgiving nature. (I hope there will be an Oscar nomination for her in the near future.) Director Stephen Frears films Dench in such a way that all of the wrinkles show on a face earned from a life lived appreciative of comforts but not accustomed to luxury and she appears all the more beautiful because of it. Philomena is a mixture of naïvete and wisdom which proves to be a make her both strong and weak. She is a comfortable foil for Smith. The sophistication of the storyline is that it does not browbeat the audience over the idea that these two very different individuals learn to appreciate the positive qualities of the other. Both legitimate responses of the art of forgiveness and the relief that comes from a satisfying confrontation of wrong doers are presented to the satisfaction of the audience. Neither forgiveness nor confrontation is going to change the past but in the end forgiveness does not mean one should walk away from holding those accountable for their past actions. Faith and critical thinking do not have to be at odds.

I highly recommend Philomena. If you are not able to catch it in the theater it will play just as well on DVD or cable. It is a wonderful film that could have easily left the audience deflated but manages to mix the troubling topic with just enough wit and light heartedness to leave viewers with a smile at the end.

Happy viewing!