Mother Superior

Philomena

philomena

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Mare Winningham, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon

British director Stephen Frears certainly brings out the best in his female leads in his stunning filmography. Who can forget Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons or Angelica Huston in The Grifters? Or more recently Helen Mirren in her Oscar winning performance in The Queen?

The Queen

Frears manages to bring out the subtle naivety and unearthed guilt in Judi Dench’s Oscar nominated brilliant performance in the title role of Philomena a fascinating almost picaresque account of two people Philomena Lee and Martin Sixsmith in their quest to locate Philomena’s long lost son.

Philomena terrorized by Irish nuns and who fell pregnant after a brief encounter with a young man in Limerick back in the 1950’s, unknowingly gives up her young son at a reclusive Irish convent where the nuns reigned supreme, punishing young women who succumbed to the temptations of the flesh, by forcibly removing their unwanted children. This unorthodox form of adoption involved selling the small children to wealthy Americans to financially benefit the local nunnery, a practice which Sixsmith, a former Media Liaison Officer and now freelance journalist discovers to his horror and moral indignation.

Martin Sixsmith, Cambridge educated and living in Knightsbridge, an intellectual snob has to come down a level when he takes on the case of Philomena’s abandoned son who has gone missing fifty years earlier. Sixsmith, superbly played by comic actor Steve Coogan in one of the his best onscreen performances takes the slightly naive and streetwise Philomena on a journey to Washington DC to discover where her son is.

With his persistent investigative journalism skills, Sixsmith at the coaxing of his editor Sally Mitchell played by Games of Thrones actress Michelle Fairley soon realizes that Philomena’s son who would be 50 years old, was a legal advisor to the Republican Party in Washington D.C., but more revealingly was a closeted homosexual living during the era of denialism which blighted the initial impact of the AIDS epidemic in the years of the Reagan and the first Bush administration, namely the mid 1980’s to mid 1990’s.

More shockingly, Philomena and Sixsmith return to the convent aptly named the Sisters of the Sacred Heart to discover the awful truth about the fate of her son and the scandalous lengths the Catholic Church went to, to cover up not only his birth and illegal adoption, but those of many other children in the early 1950’s. An unfortunate fate which awaited all unwed Catholic girls in Ireland in that equally repressive era.

With his usual dexterity, Stephen Frears spins out an engrossing narrative around the journey that Philomena and Sixsmith embark on from Ireland to America and back again, puncturing the odyssey with nostalgic home video footage of the life of the lost son.

Dench’s  performance is subtle, gentle yet determined portraying both conviction and blind faith in Catholicism, which ironically deprived her of her only son and used shame and guilt to cover up the transaction. Sixsmith’s character also serves as a substitute son in Philomena emphasized in one hilarious scene in a Washington Hotel room where the only way to gain entry is to state that Philomena is his mother. With masterly performances by Dench and Coogan, Philomena is an acerbic, witty and tragic tale of revelation and forgiveness, expertly directed by Frears with a suitably poignant musical score by Alexandre Desplat. Highly recommended viewing and based upon the real story, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith.

 

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