Imagine this. You’re just about to go to work one evening when you find your elderly mother quietly weeping over the photograph of a three-year-old boy. She tells you he would have been 50 today. She had him out of wedlock in the 1950s in Ireland, and has never mentioned him since. He was taken away from her without her knowledge or consent, sold to a rich American family by the Catholic Church, and she was told on pain of damnation never to tell a living soul.
That’s the starting point for Philomena. It’s a true story, more or less.
What would you do? Philomena’s daughter contacted a journalist who was, as it happened, a lapsed Catholic called Martin Sixsmith, cast aside by the Blair administration, contemptuous of doing a mere “human interest story” but in no position to be picky. Drawn in despite his prejudices, he takes Philomena to Washington to find out what really happened to her son. It turns out to be a life-changing experience for them both.
There are a good few movies around exposing the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries where pregnant Irish women were incarcerated in the mid-20th century. Philomena’s baby was born breech without pain relief – the Sisters in their mercy wanted her to really suffer for her sin. There are also plenty of road movies featuring the sparring of odd couples. Remarkably, Philomena doesn’t fall into either of these rather hackneyed groups. It’s an initially unassuming movie that slowly creeps up on you and shows you that the contrast between good and evil, faith and reason, meekness and crusading fervour, is nowhere near as simple as we might think.
Martin is a very angry man. It’s convenient that Philomena’s horrific story gives him something socially acceptable to be angry about. He’s angry with God, he’s livid with the Catholic Church, and he’s angry at his own circumstances. Being a reasonable, civilised man, he doesn’t necessarily like to admit to the last one, at least. He’s utterly cynical and hard-nosed when he sells Philomena’s story to a features editor, but deeply uneasy when he realises what it’s putting her through. He finds her infuriating and incomprehensible, particularly her refusal to question or abandon her Catholicism, but gradually he comes to realise that, although the Church has been the author of her pain, it also gives her the tools to make it bearable – forgiveness, acceptance, a measure of inner peace. And ultimately, he realises that in that respect she may be better off than him.
Steve Coogan is wonderful as the kind of charming but smug metropolitan intellectual who’s waiting for all those simple people out there to catch up with him and admit that this religion business is a load of dangerous rubbish. He’s charming, he gets things done, but in his interactions with this simple, Irish lady who can’t quite believe how nice the hotel staff are in Washington and wants to lend him romantic novels, there’s more than a hint of snobbery. It’s a snobbery that many upwardly-mobile baby-boomers can recognise in themselves when they confront sincere and arguably irrational belief.
There are about half-a-dozen fascinating stories in this film, any one of which would make a good movie in its own right. At its heart is a very good script, the kind of story you’d dismiss as ludicrous if it didn’t happen to be true, and two stellar performances from Coogan and Judi Dench. Dench is one of those actresses who becomes transparent, completely subsumed into her character. It’s an incredible performance.
A quiet movie, without razzmatazz or fireworks, that packs quite a punch.