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Philomena is yet another instance of the vast, unimaginable crimes of the Catholic Church. Young girls would get pregnant, and the Church sold the babies to wealthy American families. Of course, if complications arose, the wayward girls were spared the embarrassment and died anonymously among makeshift midwives. Based on the research and novel by Martin Sixsmith, the 2013 film does still provide a course for salvation. But if things are ever going to change, Philomena has the playbook, and her insistence on sharing it, makes this Stephen Frears film standout.
Not getting her due, Philomena (Judy Dench) succumbed to being human in the unforgiven morals of Catholic Ireland. “You are the cause of your own shame, You are the cause of your own indecency,” the soulless Sister Hildegarde oozes sexual repression.
Who is the real sinner?
Philomena’s postwar parents were not much better. “My father just left me with the nuns. He was so ashamed. He told everyone I was dead,” Philomena recalled.
The teenager also suffers appropriately in child birth as her baby enters unturned. “The pain is her penance,” implores the evil sister.
The nuns also make sure the penance lasts long after Anthony is born, and Philomena draws backbreaking work in the laundry. No points are given either for the love she has for her bastard child. This leaves only a daily hour of coupling in which the nuns seem to be sure that it’s all God can bear.
Obviously, the 50 years that pass do not lift the burden. Flashbacks reflect the pain and Judy Dench’s eyes provide the mirror. Of course, nothing hurts more than the day Anthony is whisked off without even a goodbye for the mother.
Eventually having a family, the secret finally forces its way out. “He would have been 50 today,” Dench suddenly unburdens herself.
The loss is abound. But anger has yet to arrive, and it doesn’t reside with Philomena. Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is a government advisor who has lost his position and is trying to angle his way back into the realm of respectability. “I’m going to write a novel about Russian History,” he lacks a plan.
At the same time, his condescending air has not left him and re-entry would require debasing himself as a human interest writer. “Human interest story is a euphemism for stories about weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people to put in newspapers read by vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people,” he signals his reluctance.
The story in question is Philomena’s, and he is forced to relent. Sophisticated intellectual versus a simple Catholic women, the collision of their very different world plays wonderfully.
Jumping right in, Martin is writing a book about the “political horse trading” of the October Revolution, and in her estimation, she’s reading a romance novel that occupies common ground. “Mine’s about horses and a fellow named, Robert,” Philomena assures. “He takes up an interest so he can get in with the upper classes. And, of course, he meets this girl down at the stables.”
Philomela provides the closure.
Still as the two go in tandem to America, Martin is not as accepting as the viewing audience. “I've finally seen, first hand, what a lifetime's diet of the Reader's Digest, the Daily Mail and romantic fiction can do to a person's brain,” he laments.
No matter, the search reveals several abrupt plot twists, which eventually leaves a circuitous climax back at the Abby. The contrast once again comes into play, but the differences aren’t meant to amuse at this point.
On Martin’s side, anger reflects the outrage of anyone within viewing range, but it is Philomena who provides crucial push back. “It must be exhausting,” she tempers his anger.
The paradigm shifting, this leaves her fundamental Catholic beliefs to provide the way forward. The closure she then provides should be noted by those who so easily forget the Christ they are supposed to represent.
Whether they listen is doubtful, but at least Philomena helps us believe that such a thing is possible.
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