Philomena – Heavy truths made light with the pen

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How it’s New York: It is partly set in Ireland, the main character is Irish and the topics and themes are Irishness to the core.
JUDI DENCH and STEVE COOGAN star in PHILOMENA Photo: Alex Bailey � 2013 The Weinstein Company.

JUDI DENCH and STEVE COOGAN star in PHILOMENA
Photo: Alex Bailey � 2013 The Weinstein Company.

How it’s Irish: Philomena is currently running at the Paris theater and the Sunshine Landmark theater here in the city.

Based on Martin Sixsmith’s biography of Philomena Lee’s search for her son, Anthony, controversy surrounds the film. Anthony was given up for adoption by the convent in whose care Lee was placed when she was just 18-years-old. Allegations against the catholic church for effectively selling Anthony and other children to wealthy US families, while the Irish government colluded, abound.

Co-writer, co-producer and lead actor, Steve Coogan, plays Sixsmith, the investigative journalist who took on the story of finding Lee’s son for a human interest piece. Most famous for his over the top BBC character, Alan Partridge, Coogan brings depth and subtlety to this performance. In an interview online, he said that he asked director, Stephen Frears, to tell him when he was acting too big and to direct him to tone it down accordingly.

There isn’t much that has been left unsaid when it comes to praise for the Dame,

but Judi Dench is resplendent as Philomena.

I even managed to curtail my usual critique of non-Irish actors portraying Irish characters, as her hybrid Irish/English accent is really spot on for an Irish woman living in the UK for 50+ years.

The relationship between Philomena and Martin is the oil that keeps things rolling in a film which focuses on a fairly unpalatable topic.

Sixsmith is an entrenched anti-catholic, who favors the intellectual over the spiritual. Philomena is a staunch catholic and as described by Martin,

“is a perfect example of someone who has lived on a 30-year diet of Readers Digest and romance novels”.

JUDI DENCH and STEVE COOGAN star in PHILOMENA Photo: Alex Bailey � 2013 The Weinstein Company.

JUDI DENCH and STEVE COOGAN star in PHILOMENA
Photo: Alex Bailey � 2013 The Weinstein Company.

In some of the funniest scenes in the film, Philomena delightfully relays the very obvious plot turns in the novels she is reading, to which Coogan wordlessly responds with facial responses which skillfully incorporate a perfect cocktail of horror, restraint and diplomacy. In exchange, she continually references his Oxford education with some condescension and to great comedic effect, calling it Uxbridge, which he somewhat sheepishly corrects every time, seemingly trying to convince himself that this really does mean something. In the battle between the intellectual and the spiritual, both characters are forced to look at their strongly held beliefs in new ways, developing a slow-churning mutual respect for one another and in the closing and some of the most poignant scenes in the film, it is her faith, not in a church, but in something much greater, as well as her deep well of compassion that triumphs.

The film is very one sided and represents the Sisters of the Mercy –or ‘no mercy’ as Philomena’s daughter, (Anna Maxwell Martin) calls them–, as morally reprehensible, and is a damning indictment of the church’s abuse of power coupled with their almost greater moral crimes – defiant cover ups and a seeming lack of remorse. The only nun to rise above the milieu befriends the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) at the convent, and sneaks a photograph of Anthony to her – a photograph that helped to sustain Philomena for 50 years. But this one small mercy will not convince most that it is anything other than a blessing that the church’s franchise has more or less expired in the country.

The Irish countryside looks vast and green under Frear’s direction, inducing wistful feelings for a visit (the Irish tourism authority must be delighted with it). The final snow covered scene at the convent in Roscrea make it seem like a magical place suggesting that perhaps lost innocence can once again be recaptured – if only for a moment.

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Copyright 2013 New York Irish Arts