“Philomena” Handles True-Life Tragedy with Grace

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The amiable and quietly infuriating Philomena is, appropriately enough, cut from the same cloth as its reality-based main character, Philomena Lee: discontent to wallow in its own grief, it opts instead for a positive outlook. Considering the injustices and insults suffered by Lee and our tendency as onlookers to jump to our feet in righteous indignation, this is no small accomplishment, making for one of the most unexpectedly moving movies of the season.

Philomena tells the true tale of Lee (Judi Dench), a mild-mannered Irish biddy who, though comfortably nestled in retirement in her small rural town, decides to come clean with a long-held secret: when just a girl, she had a child out of wedlock. Though she had no idea what was going on with her body (her mother was dead and the nuns at her school did not teach sex education), her humiliated father dropped her off at a convent and told the family that his daughter was dead. She bore the child in secret, and as payment for the nuns’ protection and lodging, she worked seven days a week in the abbey laundry. Her only joy was the one hour per day that she was allowed to see her son.

And then one day, when her little boy Anthony was just three, he was sold without her knowledge for a thousand pounds.

Even drawing this tale in broad strokes brings my blood to a boil. As it did for Martin Sixsmith (played here by Steve Coogan), a British journalist recently shamed in the press for his involvement in a political scandal who was desperately looking for his next project. When fate brings the folksy, simple Philomena to the cynical writer’s doorstep, his fury at the actions of the Church is eclipsed only by his distaste for this dotty old woman’s reluctance to share his anger. As the two begin to piece together what happened to her son, a typical opposites-attract road trip becomes a quiet rumination on faith, grace, and forgiveness.

Related: Interview: Steve Coogan On Homophobia And Sexual Repression In “Philomena”

I won’t spoil the entire tale, because part of the film’s power lies in its measured unspooling of facts. But you might be wondering why I’m writing about this film at all for this site. Well, without getting too much into the details, it turns out that Philomena’s son was gay. And part of Philomena’s journey is her coming to terms with this fact, as well as with her son’s longtime partner.

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I realize that all of this probably sounds rather grim and depressing. And to look just at the stark facts, it is. But in the expert hands of director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity, Dangerous Liaisons) and boosted by a carefully considered script (co-written by Coogan) based on the Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the facts become a story not of regret, but of our ability to achieve transcendence over loss, no matter how great or grievous.

The driving force behind this transcendence is Lee herself as she is brought to kind, crinkly-eyed life by the amazing Dench. Having come from an Irish-American family myself, I recognized about a half-dozen of my elders in Lee: the resolve, the joy found in simple pleasures, the steadfast adherence to one’s values and beliefs paired with allowance of “to each his own.” She takes ownership of her faith and the hand that life has dealt her, and she bears no bitterness for the slights she has suffered. She’s a truly inspiring character, portrayed gently and masterfully by a truly inspiring actress.

Part of Sixsmith’s frustration is that Lee won’t stand up for herself, and in that sense I can also see a kinship between this woman whose life was taken away from her by an unfeeling religious institution and many LGBT people. The film is careful not to equate the Church with people of faith, and suggests that while an institution can be very wrong in its treatment of individuals, the underlying tenets of faith need not be crushed or called into question. It’s also interesting that Lee admits that she had always suspected that her son might have been gay due to his sensitive nature as a boy; it almost seems as though their shared status as outsiders is a source of comfort to her, and one that she embraces without judgment.

Thanks to a fascinating true story, a deeply moving central performance (well-supported by Coogan’s prickly straight man), and a refusal to bow to the more cynical tendencies of pulled-from-the-headlines films, Philomena delivers a warm, unexpectedly funny, and very satisfying moviegoing experience. This holiday season, it might be the perfect movie to see with mom.

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