A Moment Of Truth
A Review by Elizabeth McKenzie
‘Philomena’ has everything going for it. A heart wrenching plotline, consummate direction, great acting by the two leads, one of whom is a legend of the profession. Critics and audiences seemingly love it. Our emotions – from righteous anger to suspense to warm fuzzy feelings are engaged – if not manipulated – as we journey with Philomena and journalist Martin Sixsmith on a journey to find her son, Anthony, (who would be celebrating his 50th birthday), forcibly wrenched from her when he was three years old to be adopted by a well-to-do American couple.
But a great film it is not. The first half of the film runs perilously close to being clichéd. A young woman, (we are told later she is merely 15 years of age) wandering through a fairground – on her own! – being stalked by a callow youth, she seemingly doesn’t know – also on his own!- and being seduced by him. Of course, she falls pregnant and under circumstances we don’t know anything about, is consigned to the seventh circle of Hell for bad-girls-who-lose-their-knickers-and-become-pregnant: a Magdalene Laundry. Further horrors are revealed. The girls (for most of them are mid-teens) have to work washing other peoples’ dirty linen, under Dickensian work conditions, for no pay – unless you count a hard bed, gruel a few times a day, and very basic childcare (no Montessori educational aids in these crèches) for their babies, as some form of remuneration. But even this respite, when they can at least cuddle their babies for an hour once a day is brutally cut short when the babies (or in Philomena’s case her three year old son – it is never explained why or how some children were still in the Magdalene workhouse until they were toddlers) are adopted, by well-to-do American (and no doubt, Irish) couples who proceed to enroll them in Montessori kindergartens, generally ensuring that they have a well-heeled upbringing and forget – or are taught to forget, their birth mothers, who pine for them for the rest of their lives.
To give her her due, Philomena does not see herself as a ‘relinquishing mother’ victim. She has made a success of her life, joining her older sister in England and becoming a nurse, before marrying and having a daughter. We quickly warm to her. She is feisty, good-natured, resilient and has only one desire – to find out if her ‘lost’ son ever thinks about her. But these attributes are downplayed in the film so that instead of us seeing them as positive characteristics, they are perceived as potentially debilitating.
With Sixsmith as her guide, she embarks on an archetypical journey which takes her back to ‘Roscrea Abbey’, the dreaded laundry, now a much more benign convent for young novices from Africa and sisters who have retired, and then onto Washington D C which produces its own challenges for both Philomena and Sixsmith. One of the strengths of the film is the gradual, subtle bonding between these two – Sixsmith is about the same age as Anthony. The relationship becomes a comfortable companionship, both the director and script resisting the temptation to make it a substitute mother-son relationship.
Philomena reveals a capacity for tolerance, acceptance and religious faith that clearly irritates Sixsmith. As his is the dominant ‘voice’ in the film, I would suggest that without even realising it, we see Philomena through his eyes and in turn share his exasperation with her. We too see her accepting attitudes as weakness, her insistence on maintaining and living by her Christian values as naïve, her deep faith as of no consequence in the ‘real world’. Yet it is precisely these attributes that have enabled her to live to old age without rancour or bitterness, despite the tragic injustice at the very core of her existence.
The time spent in Washington presents several situations, and one in particular, – what has become of Anthony? – which are ripe for at least one denouement. But this particular denouement proves to be an anticlimax. Anthony has died – of AIDS a few years previously. Both his death and the fact that he was homosexual seem to wash over Philomena, adding to our perception of her as being both unsophisticated and a bit dimwitted. We expect another reaction and are disappointed in her equable acceptance of his gender orientation and his fate. She is however adamant about her mission to find out if he ever thought about her and his Irish origins. However the revelation that he did indeed think of her throughout his life and when he was dying, proves to be another non-event.
The setting up of several potentially powerful denouements which all fizzle out – undermine the real dramatic core of the film which has nothing to do with Philomena’s search for her son and everything to do with who she is as a person. The most powerful denouement of all is when Philomena forgives Sr Hildegard. In spite of age and infirmity, Sr Hildegard virulently believes that Philomena had sinned (something Philomena had concurred with almost all her life!) and deserved to be punished for it. But so much has our perception of Philomena been influenced by the presentation of her as naïve and simple, that the implication of this heroic and considered act of forgiveness, is too easily dismissed. There is no concession by the director or the actors, that for Philomena to be able to forgive such an injustice and such malice, requires a deep abiding faith in herself – and her God – that cannot be and has not been, quashed by tragedy or injustice. And because we’ve been brainwashed into accepting her as ‘not quite with it’, we also dismiss this moment as of no consequence.
But it is, of course, the dramatic core of the film. It reveals Philomena, not as naïve or simple or weak or out of touch but powerfully in control of her own life and who she is. A realisation of and emphasis on the powerful dramatic tension and potential of that forgiving moment would have placed Philomena amongst the truly great cinematic experiences in film, such as The lives of others and The secret in their eyes. As it is, it is merely another fizzled-out denouement.
I have a few more gripes about Philomena. Judi Dench’s wig was surely flinched from the prop basket of Mrs Brown’s Boys (reinforcing the presentation of her as not to be taken seriously?) The wrought iron arch over the entrance to the convent was eerily reminiscent of the wrought iron arch over the entrance to Dachau – albeit a smaller version! Last but not least, there is a much loved, highly respected, long established community of Cistercian monks living in the Cistercian Abbey in Roscrea, locally known as ‘Roscrea Abbey’. Surely the producers would have known this when they were assigning names for the hell-hole of the Magdalene laundry?
Elizabeth McKenzie is part of the Tinteán editorial team.