Losing a child is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a person.
You would get no argument on that count from Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench), a now elderly Irish woman who was forced to give up her son to adoption when she was a teenager after he was born out of wedlock in an era where such an entry into the world was a cause of eternal shame, and in some staunchly religious eyes, damnation too.
Forced to live at Roscrea convent in county Tipperary with nuns who, for the most part, treated her like a slave – it was the era of the Magdalene girls who were forced to work long hours in appalling conditions at convents to repay the cost of the “care” the nuns grudgingly bestowed on the pregnant girls assigned to them – she had little choice to yield her son up to adoption.
Once he left the convent one day, with little to no notice, she never saw him again, and even more painfully, never spoke of him again, not even to her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) until fifty years when on the night of his birthday, she finally gave up the long held secret.
Jane, by coincidence, was working as a cater waiter at an event where she met Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a one time BBC journalist who had been forced to resign from his job as a spin doctor for the Blair government after a scandal of sorts engulfed the administration.
Angry at being treated as the fall guy for a government keen to avoid a public relations nightmare, he was uncertain what he would do next apart from possibly writing a book on Russian history, a goal treated with barely-disguised bemusement by pretty much everyone he mentioned it to.
One thing the hardened newsman, who was also a bitter lapsed Catholic, did not want to do was a human interest story which is exactly what Jane proposed when she spoke to him.
Deciding for whatever reason to take on the job in one of the great leaps of narrative non-information of which the mostly excellent script by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope seems inordinately fond; there are times when the next of the puzzle is handed to Sixsmith and Lee with far too much unexplained ease and thus very little in the way of storytelling tension – he embarks on a long lost journey to find Lee’s long ago lost son.
It is a journey made all the more arduous by an obstructive Catholic Church hierarchy who seem more intent on shielding themselves from retribution than redeeming past travesties, Lee’s uncertainty of what finding her son may mean and whether he was thought of her or Ireland at all (for the record he had, the search consuming his life) and a number of people for whom the past should quite definitely remain buried.
That they found him is a matter of public record, detailed in Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, but it is not the fairytale ending some might have expected with Lee having to grapple with a whole host of resurfacing emotions as the search takes them to Washington where Anthony her son grew up with his adopted sister Mary (Mare Winngingham).
It is a tale that on paper at least should be heartfelt and rousing, and indeed Dench’s portrayal of Lee’s repressed pain and loyalty to the Church despite the grief it inflicted is pitch perfect as is Coogan’s world-weary journalist Sixsmith whose cynicism and cultural snobbery is at odds with lee, with whom he ends up bonding after a fashion.
Refreshingly Philomena is not some six-hankies-in-a-minute weepie, eschewing the obvious route of fashioning a woman-done-wrong tale that manipulatively squeezes every last drop of sympathy you might have for her.
While that is welcome, and the movie is on the whole beautifully told, it leaves a cold remoteness to its subjects in its wake.
You intellectually know this is a troubling, nay gut-wrenching tale and there are several scenes where Dench’s evincing of Lee’s five decades long well of pain is heartbreaking in the extreme, but for the most part in trying not to be a tragic movie-of-the-week schlock piece, Philomena somehow leaches the raw emotion out of the story, the very thing that would help you connect with it in a profound way.
As it is, engrossing though Philomena is, and delightfully punctuated by moments of unexpected humour and witty sparring and banter between Lee and Sixsmith though it may be, it fails to deeply connect on as meaningful level as I would have expected, leaving you feeling like some distant onlooker to events.
This is not to say the movie is emotionally affecting because it most assuredly is, but it is missing the sort of “that could any one of us” element that is so crucial to investment in properly told tales of this nature.
Having said that though, Philomena richly deserves all the awards talk it has generated with excellent performances throughout, a script that mostly delivers the goods under assured direction by Stephen Frears, a soft but welcome line in social commentary, and a tale that can’t help but speak to the fear every one of us has of losing something vitally important that we may be able to make our own again.
* Here’s an excellent recounting of his time with Philomena by Martin Sixsmith from The Guardian.