Though compelling, the fact-based drama "Philomena" (Weinstein) makes uncomfortable viewing for Catholic moviegoers.
That's because this story of the titular character's search for her long-lost son presents church institutions in a uniformly negative light.
Yet director Stephen Frears' screen version of Martin Sixsmith's book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" recognizes the enduring individual faith of this same warmhearted Irish woman—played with aplomb by Judi Dench—as the source of her endearing personality.
Flashbacks to Philomena's teen years, during which she's portrayed by Sophie Kennedy Clark, show us some of the worst aspects of Irish society in the 1950s. An encounter with a stranger at a county fair leaves young Philomena pregnant, and her family, scandalized and shamefaced, promptly abandons her.
With nowhere else to turn, Philomena is thrown on the not-very-abundant mercy of the nuns who run a local facility for unwed mothers. There she's browbeaten, forced to endure a torturous breech delivery without anesthesia and only allowed to see her child for an hour a day. The rest of the time she toils in the convent laundry to work off her "debt" to the sisters.
But there's worse to come. Mothers at the home are more or less forced to give their children up for adoption to rich American visitors to the Emerald Isle, and one day it's Philomena's turn to undergo this ordeal. The separation is absolute; Philomena loses all track of the boy.
Flash-forward 50 years and, for the first time, retired nurse Philomena shares her sad tale with her grown daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin). Through Jane, Philomena is able to enlist the help of cynical British reporter Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay).
Recently an adviser to Tony Blair's Labor government, Sixsmith is at a loose end after being fired amid career-damaging circumstances. Though disdainful of human-interest stories, he nonetheless sees the appeal of Philomena's quest and brings his investigative skills to bear on her behalf.
As chronicled in Coogan and Jeff Pope's script, both the beginning and the conclusion of Philomena's saga have the potential to jar believers' sensibilities.
Thus, with reference to the church's sexual teaching and Philomena's past, altar-boy-turned-atheist Sixsmith asks her why God would endow us with an appetite he then wanted us to suppress. Not surprisingly, he seems blind to the difference between suppression and moderation, and ignores the obvious analogy that God did not give human beings the blessing of food so that we could become obese gluttons.
On the other hand, properly viewed, "Philomena" may serve to illustrate the dangers that can result when appreciation for the virtue of chastity degenerates into puritanical repression -- and when objective moral truths are misused as judgmental bludgeons.
With the exception of one seemingly temporary crisis, moreover, Philomena herself is shown to cling tenaciously to the very faith by whose representatives she was so cruelly mistreated. In fact, her Gospel-based beliefs help to set up the contrast in personalities between the two leads on which much of the movie's drama—as well as many of its interludes of much-needed comic relief—turn.
Throughout their interaction, Philomena's religiously inspired enthusiasm for life, friendliness toward others and willingness to forgive are shown to be in stark opposition to Sixsmith's jaded, isolating air of condescension.
Even so, a large measure of discernment is required to tackle the challenging material on offer here, including a conflicted but not fundamentally hostile outlook on faith.
The film contains mature themes including premarital sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancy and homosexuality, a scene of painful childbirth, a couple of same-sex kisses, a few rough terms and a couple of crude expressions. The Catholic News Service classification is L—limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
John Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.
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