I love movies like Philomena that are investigative in nature without an overt criminal act. In addition, the two main actors–Judi Dench and Steve Coogan–are outstanding. Dench has been nominated for a 2013 Best Actress Oscar. But Coogan is equally good. The movie is based on real events.
Pregnant out of wedlock in the 1950’s Ireland, Philomena Lee was incarcerated in a convent for 4 years. Her baby was taken from her and put up for adoption, and eventually taken to the United States. Years later, when Philomena wanted to learn what had happen to her son, the nuns refused to give her any information. At this point, her hunt is enjoined by Martin Sixsmith, a snobbishly cynical reporter. The movie centers around their journey of discovery.
The repartee between the blue-collar Philomena and the elitist Martin is very snappy and occasionally intense. But they manage to stay friendly, with Philomena getting in some great verbal jabs.
The general plot of the movie is summed up in the quote from T.S. Eliot that Martin tells Philomena.
We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.
Sixsmith ended up writing the book on which the movie is based. But the book is mainly about the Philomena’s son and his life in America (he was gay and served in the Reagan administration).
The movie is not perfect. The Catholic Church comes off very badly, perhaps too badly. According to Time magazine (3 Mar 2014): “the movie nuns are slightly more sinister than they were in Lee’s life.” Because of all the problems that the Church has had and is still enduring in Ireland, it has become an easy target. Exaggerations, even small ones, are hardly necessary.
Early this year, the real-life Philomena met with Pope Francis. Using publicity from the movie, she is circulating a petition that encourages the Irish Church to make more information public about adoptions like hers.
Time points out an interesting fact: “Six of the nine nominees for 2013 Best Picture are about real people and real events. And Philomena, is one of these “fact-based” films. Time asks the question: Why?
Rick Busselle, who studies media psychology at Bowling Green State University, says that knowing a story isn’t fantasy means you can’t dismiss it, so “the audience finds the less extraordinary events of real life more compelling than the extra-extra-extraordinary events of fiction.”
I liked the movie Philomena a lot. But I must admit a prejudice here. I distrust all organizations. Thus, this movie plays right into my prejudice.