Victoria Jelinek


philomena-movie-poster-2After losing his job as a spin-doctor for the government, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) resolves to return to journalism. Then the story of an Irishwoman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) happens upon his doorstep. As a teenager in the 1950’s, she had a child in a convent that she gave up. A secret she has kept for 50 years. Together, Martin and Philomena set out to find him.

Philomena confides in her daughter that in her teens she had a baby boy out of wedlock. Disowned by her family, she was sent to a Magdalene home in County Tipperary, where she endured forced labor, seeing her child for just an hour a day. In order to leave the home, she would have had to pay 100lbs – an unimaginable sum for her at the time – or stay for four years. One morning, a couple takes her son away in an expensive car, along with the daughter of her best friend, and Philomena is advised to put her son out of her mind. Believing she has committed a grave sin of the flesh by having sex and conceiving a child out of wedlock, Philomena keeps her secret until the event of his 50th birthday, when she confides in her adult daughter. Is he still alive? Is he a drug addict? Is he homeless or lost? Every mother’s worst fears flicker through her mind.

This is harrowing subject matter, but writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope make the astute decision to distil Philomena’s story through a man who, initially, isn’t interested in her story, and the film keeps this remoteness throughout. While the two characters come to a mutual understanding of each other, they do not alter who they are as a result of the experience. Additionally, despite the themes of cruelty and injustice of the Magdalene homes, and the disgraces of Ronald Reagan’s administration, this is a droll film. Praise notwithstanding, there is one aspect of the film that leaves this writer troubled by its inclusion as well as the script’s nomination for best screenplay at the Oscars. There is a scene in which Philomena and Martin meet her son’s adopted sister, who came with him from the convent. Mary (Mare Cunningham) states they did not have a happy childhood, and suggests cruelty on the part of their adopted father, but this is not developed. She claims that Philomena’s son never mentioned or considered their origin, Ireland, or his biological mother, a fact that is later completely discredited. I was left with many questions about Mary’s motives for lying, and the inclusion of this scene in the film, and believe that without developing these provocative storylines introduced here (which the film did not) this scene should have been cut. Its insertion niggled me, and I suspect its inclusion is a clumsy attempt to create a sense of ‘jeopardy” before the third act. It is, I believe, the subject matter, with all of its historical and ethical implications, its humorous treatment, and the talent of the actors that make this film a great picture.


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