Reviews

'Philomena' Struggles with the Decisions of the Irish Catholic Church

Judi Dench's character journeys to America, haunted by the loss of her baby son and traumas at the hands of nuns in the Magdalene Laundries.


Philomena

Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clarke, Mare Winningham
Rated: PG-13
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-11-22 (Limited release)
UK date: 2013-11-01 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"I remember that day so clearly," begins Philomena (Judi Dench). And as she remembers, the exceedingly helpful Philomena illustrates exactly what she says. As her adult daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) and the journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) lean toward her over a restaurant table with a white tablecloth, Philomena recalls how she lost her baby son Anthony.

This trauma was not unexpected: "We all knew what it meant when a big car arrived," she says," as the film shows the young and winsome Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) looking out an upstairs window onto the driveway below. It meant that someone was coming to take someone else's child, a child born to one of the girls living at this prison-like convent at Roscrea, one of Ireland's notorious Magdalene Laundries.

The film underlines the terror and helplessness Philomena feels in this moment, with the camera pitching as she runs up and down stairs, from room to room, her cries vivid and piercing. Blocking her is the film's embodiment of the most despicable Irish Catholic Church, the brutal Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford), so imposing a presence that she makes fearful all the other denizens of this Laundry, the nuns and the "wayward" girls sent away by their mortified, impoverished, and otherwise marginalized families.

As the camera watches from the upstairs window and the boy disappears into the waiting car, the film cuts back to Martin now, who duly mirrors your own reaction to this terrible story. And then, being a onetime journalist who's recently lost his advising job with the Blair administration, he agrees to pursue what happened next, to try to find out where little Anthony ended up. To fund the venture, he convinces a former editor that no matter the outcome -- tragedy or happy ending -- the story will be great human-interest-weekend-section material.

Just so, the film acknowledges the careful and conventional structuring of the story on which it's based, the real-life Sixsmith's article and book, and then proceeds to deliver to several other sets of movie conventions, as the odd couple Philomena and Martin bond during a road trip to the US, while also uncovering particularly American culpabilities too, including a profitable trade in babies between the US and the Irish Catholic Church. Here the film indulges in an odd device, showing home movies -- some reenacted, some reportedly footage of the real-life boy -- to ensure that you share Philomena's regret and nostalgia for a child's life she didn't witness. This all to make you good and sad by the time you learn what happened to the grown-up Anthony, renamed Michael by his apparently loving adoptive parents, when he finds a job with the Reagan administration, and... wait for it… he's gay and closeted during the rise of AIDS.

The several plotty turns here are rendered in ways you might expect, discoveries made in google searches or sometimes in face-to-face interviews; one with Anthony's adopted sister Mary (Mare Winningham), another child taken from Roscrea, offers a bit of aptly resonant awkward silence, with Martin's expressive face -- sad, aghast -- again reflecting your own. More often, though, exchanges are chatty and revelations are spelled out. In between the search into her son's history, perky Philomena also discovers present-day America, including hotel breakfast muffins and VOD, which delights include Big Momma's House, in which "little black man pretends to be a fat black lady." As Martin smiles, sort of, here, you might appreciate Philomena's endlessly optimistic view of the world, her unquestioning faith in God despite what's befallen her, and her determination not to be cynical like her traveling companion.

Certainly, Dench's mostly subtle performance yields many layers not written into Philomena's dialogue: she's not given to self-reflection per se. But still, Philomena cannot leave this well enough alone, and so repeatedly over-explains the significance of discoveries along Philomena's Forrest-Gumpily episodic family history, with poignant close-ups and obvious soundtrack cues or those home movie bits. Here the traumas become individual moments, as the evils of homophobia and misogyny (to name two) appear as moments on a timeline, institutional and cultural panics now declared over, steps along the paths of Philomena and Martin's mutual educations. As she comes to see that his adamant atheism is something like a forgivable character quirk, and as he is inevitably inspired by her gumption to rethink his own cynicism, they come together in a lovely melodramatic flourish that resembles the melodramatic plots of novels she likes to recite as evidence of the wonders of human adventures. That Philomena or Martin might find solace in such familiar and clearly remembered stories is one thing. That the movie follows suit is another.

4

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image