Steve Coogan co-writes, produces and stars opposite Judi Dench in a tale of investigative journalism based on a true story.
Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is a Labour spin-doctor shafted when his well intentioned but unfortunately phrased email becomes the object of media hysteria. Moping around, pitching a book on Russian history, the former journalist is approached at a party by waitress Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin). Jane’s Irish mother Philomena (Judi Dench) has just disclosed she had another child, a son; who was forcibly given up for adoption decades before while in a Magdalene laundry. Initially disinterested, Sixsmith pitches the story to hard-bitten magazine editor Sally (Michelle Fairley), and, commissioned, meets with Philomena. The unlikely duo set off on a road trip, first to the convent in Roscrea where Cathy Belton’s nun informs them all paperwork was lost in a fire, and that Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) is too ill to help them, and eventually to America to find lost child Anthony.
Coogan’s script has been acclaimed, but the Oxbridge educated Sixsmith’s consistent patronising of the ‘Daily Mail and romance novel reading’ retired nurse Philomena is actually rather uncomfortable viewing. His opening quip on leaving a carol service early, “I don’t believe in God, and I think He can tell”, recalls Woody Allen’s “To you I’m an atheist, to God I’m the loyal opposition”, but this script lacks the philosophical engagement of Allen’s most thoughtful works. It is instead largely devoted to bashing the Catholic Church without much reflection. Stephen Frears’ anonymous direction seems to display the effect of four centuries of Anti-Catholic propaganda in England as the camera almost regards pre-Vatican II clerical garb as a cinematic shorthand for evil akin to SS uniforms when depicting the laundry; which the girls could leave at any time if their families wished it.
Hillsborough shows that cover-ups are endemic to institutions, secular as much as religious, which protect their prestige at the expense of innocent victims. Mitt Romney, in his capacity as a LDS Church Bishop, was trying to persuade single mothers to give up their children for adoption well into the 1980s. But acknowledging those truths make Catholicism less exceptional… The American sequence is startling for the dramatic nuances forsaken. Philomena’s son did have a better life there than she could have given him, but he was made to feel shame for his ‘sin’ in America as much as his mother was for hers in Ireland, because of the Evangelical Protestantism that swept Reagan and the Bushes to political power. When the film returns to Roscrea, it seems relieved such knotty ambiguities can be replaced by Catholic-bashing.
Philomena excoriates people for applying their shibboleths without empathy, yet, by condemning people for not applying current shibboleths in the past, itself disdains attempting to understand why those people acted as they did – comprehension is not forgiveness, but empathy.