A lovingly-crafted tale of one woman’s search for her son.
THERE’S nothing fancy to see here – no big drumroll reveal, no teary family reunions, no loud explosions, no rousing score.
But it is the movie’s simple and almost quiet storytelling, its wry humour, and its unhurried, easy grace in dealing with grim subject matters that endears itself to the audience.
On the surface, this is a story about a young mother who has a son born out of wedlock in an Irish-Catholic community in the 1950s, and subsequently has him taken away from her.
In return for the convent nuns taking in her sorry pregnant self and putting a roof over her head, she spends her days slaving over laundry seven days a week, with one hour each day set aside to see her son.
Then, without so much as a goodbye, the toddler is whisked away from her and disappears with an unknown family in an expensive car.
Philomena is the compelling story of her search for him, a journey that would take the next 50 years of her life.
But this movie, inspired by a true story told in the 2009 investigative book The Lost Son Of Philomena Leeby Martin Sixsmith, is so much more than just that.
It is a movie with depth that manages to tackle heavy – even controversial – topics while maintaining a certain kind of “lightness” and likability.
It is about faith, tolerance, hopes and dreams, reconciliation and forgiveness.
It is also a study in contradictions – pitching jaded and cynical journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) alongside the sweet, elderly Philomena (Judi Dench) who is consumed by guilt and her unwavering Catholic faith, makes for an unlikely pair.
But it is a match that provides lots of laughs, thanks to the duo’s brilliant acting and a tight script.
Philomena swoons over romance novels, believes in the inherent good of people, and tells them they are “one in a million”, while Martin – being a been-there-done-that-can-we-move-on-please kind of guy – rolls his eyes. After all, his agreeing to take on the story of Philomena and the tracking down of her long-lost son, a “human-interest story”, is exactly the kind of stuff he usually avoids because it is about “vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people”, and fodder for the same.
Their very different personalities and contrasting belief systems make for a sound platform to explore the religious and moral themes of the movie.
Because above all, Philomena is a cautionary tale that provides a glimpse into how utterly convinced people can be of what is right and wrong, how sickening religious bigots can be, and how smug self-righteousness can be so easily justified, if only you look hard enough.
The nuns – with the exception of one – are portrayed as mean, cruel and unrepentant, with not much changing from the 1950s to the 2000s, as they seem to have no qualms about lying and burning records to cover up the convent’s sordid past.
Philomena won Best Screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival and Best Adapted Screenplay at the British Academy Film Awards. It was nominated in four categories at the 2014 Academy Awards, and had three Golden Globes nominations.
And it’s not hard to see the reason for its popularity.
As the movie draws to a close, it starts to feel more like a familiar story, one that has been told multiple times, with many more to come.
This might be the story of one mother who spent a lifetime searching for her little boy – but it is perhaps not a very different story that many mothers and their lost children can probably tell. In many cases, this familiarity might breed contempt (read: bad and boring movie). But in Philomena, it is great.