“Philomena” (Judi Dench) is an older lady, naive in some ways yet aware of the ways of the world in others. Searching for her son taken from her decades before, she eventually teams up with world weary cynical journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan).
Sixsmith is at a loose end after becoming involved in the wrong end of a scandal, becoming something of a scapegoat and pariah at the same time. His attitude to everything and everyone, arguably hastening his professional demise.
Philomena was foolish enough to “succumb to the ways of the flesh” as a young girl, leaving her “with child”. This was a time when possible accommodation was kindly provided by the Catholic church staffed by caring nuns, irony very much intended.
In return for this generosity the girls, now shunned by all good society, would be put to work seven days a week on laundry duties without pay whilst living in basic dormitories under almost penal conditions. When the babies arrived, maternity care was basic and suffering undiminished using drugs, the pain merely a reflection of the earlier sin committed. If baby or mother died then this would be gods will, both then buried unceremoniously within the institutions grounds.
As if this was not sufficient suffering, the offspring were on occasion sold to rich Americans, without the mothers consent or knowledge. The institutions were known as Magdalene Laundries (or asylums) and existing in Ireland unbelievably until 1996, catering for the loosely defined “fallen women”.
The institutions originally formed to help Prostitutes find alternative work, over the years became an easy referral for any girl deemed to have acted inappropriately, including rape. At which point effectively she would disappear, on occasion for decades. Destined to be treated almost as a prisoner, invariably subjected to both physical, mental and sexual abuse, all the while under the auspices of the Catholic Church. This regretfully is fact and well documented, indeed recently formally apologised for by the Irish government in 2013.
Back to the story, Philomena is searching for her lost son detailed in “aged movie stock” recollections within the film. Sixsmith becomes involved and following information received, widens their search to America. As the Nun’s attest, if only those helpful documents providing further information had not been destroyed in “the fire”.
Sixsmith and Philomena are complete opposites and the delight is witnessing their road trip and differing attitudes to people and situations. Both in a way suited to the modern world, yet so different. One assuming a basic good in people and the other, not so much.
Whether they find her son is largely not the focus of the story and despite the above commentary the story is not designed as a searing indictment of the system. Watch Peter Mullan’s “The Magdalene Sisters” for that. This however plays as a drama with many touching and comedic moments to enjoy.
Dench of course is as good as ever, likely to garner an Oscar nomination at least. Coogan continues to surprise with a nuanced performance which unequivocally shows he really can act. This is most definitely not Alan Partridge in a suit.
Stephen Frears direction is direct and sympathetic, neither skirting over facts nor bluntly hammering them home. The direction benefits from a skillful screenplay from Coogan, adding yet another talent to his growing resume.
There is much to enjoy here and the film is more uplifting than downbeat. The story looks for and discovers rays of sunshine in this dark tale and whatever the outcome, leaves audiences with not only something to think about but a sense that maybe real goodness can conquer all. Beliefs and how decisions reverberate through the decades, forgiveness and hate, all wrapped within a palatable story that most can relate to.
Of course, if you are of Irish descent and have a Catholic upbringing then your view may differ and the hill may just be too hard to climb up or down. As Philomena says “I have tied myself up in knots deciding which is the bigger sin, having a baby or lying about the fact”.
Like Philomena, this is a film that manages to find the goodness in dark places and will leave you outraged yet smiling and uplifted within the short running time.
A highly recommended drama, intertwined with a mismatched road buddy movie that generates comedy from believable interactions, ultimately going some way to restoring our faith in the human condition.