Philomena puts you through your emotional paces. With a running time of just 94 minutes, the film presents sensitive portrayals of real people, exploring big themes such as forgiveness and redemption in an amazing story inspired by true events.
Yet it also manages to prompt more than the occasional giggle: it’s funny.
Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, the film sees Judi Dench give an utterly convincing performance as Philomena, a retired Irish nurse in her 70s, and while Steve Coogan plays arguably his most challenging role as Martin Sixsmith, an journalist who previously worked for the BBC as a political correspondent and was also director for communications for Tony Blair’s government.
After they meet, Philomena opens up to Martin about her deepest secret: falling pregnant as a teenager in 1952. A disgrace to her family, she was sent to a convent in Roscrea, in County Tipperary, where she gave birth to her son, Anthony.
The nuns cared for the babies and children of “fallen women”, while their mothers were forced to stay in the convent and work off their “debt”. They were allowed to see their children for only an hour a day. In a particularly cruel act, the nuns adopted Anthony out to a family when he was three years old.
In the 50 years since, Philomena has been torn between guilt over her supposed sin and her gut-wrenching concern for what may have become of her son. Picking up on human interest potential in her story, Martin offers to take Philomena to the United States to find Anthony – a journey that will see the pair butt heads as a result of his cynicism and her stoicism and belief in the good of humanity.
The film includes flashback scenes showing a young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) and her experience in the abbey, as well as candid “home video” footage of Philomena’s son, some of which is sourced from the real life Anthony. These visuals drive home the fact that the story spans such a long period, highlighting Philomena’s prolonged pain and all that was taken from her.
Theology and stolen children are not easy topics to tackle, yet producer-writer-actor Steve Coogan and co-screenwriter Jeff Pope have done so with impressive skill. It was Coogan who launched the project, after reading an article in The Guardian about Philomena’s plight, about which he has been quoted as saying: “I don’t want to sound pretentious, but the story is about tolerance and understanding. That really is what it’s about.”
The project was equally appealing to Stephen Frears, who came on board as the director. As one of Britain’s most celebrated filmmakers, known for The Queen and Dangerous Liaisons, he has ensures the sensitive subject matter is not lost amid layers of dramatic tension.
The 2014 Golden Globe nominations have now been announced and it was thrilling to see Philomena up for a well-deserved three nominations. Truly a beautiful film, it is a solid exploration of the human condition and what we are capable of enduring.
Philomena opens in cinemas on Boxing Day.