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Philomena (2013)

I have mixed feelings about Stephen Frears as a director. He does these strange combinations of 'sweet and cheerful' and 'fraut with emotion'. It's a crowd pleasing combination because it means that you never go so dark as to alienate potential viewers, but you are still engaging the audience with the issue at hand.

Still, it's probably notable that the film of his which I enjoyed the most is probably his darkest: "Dirty Pretty Things" (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sophie Okonedo, Audrey Tautou and even Sergi Lopez, all in the same movie!). It was a film about illegal immigration, prostitution, sexual harassment and the illegal trade in organs, but even that had its sweeter side.

In "Philomena" I was actually surprised at how minimal the tragedy is (at least initially). The protagonist is wronged because her child is adopted by a rich family. Now, this is a child which she could not actually afford to raise herself and which, in that social setting, would have been considered a shame on her. (She was an unmarried mother. Not a big deal now, but back then was enough to get you committed to an asylum.) Living with the nuns was not much fun, but there are now stories emerging of far worse treatment in Church-owned establishments. But thankfully(?) things do get worse. More has happened in those decades since her son was taken away from her. So by the end, we really do have a story worthy of our outrage.

Judi Dench is unsurprisingly a great actress. I'm not sure about her Irish accent, but the way she captures the personality and mannerisms of the character she is performing is perfect. I'm a little less sure about the decision in the script to have her suggesting they spend their time in America watching "Big Momma's House". I'm hoping that this was put in because it really happened (presumably due to Philomena feeling nervous and out of her depth), because otherwise it seems like by far the worst of the ways the script emphasises the class divide between her character and the journalist played by Steve Coogan.

Steve Coogan isn't generally known as a great actor. He's far better known as a great comedian. However, I felt he provided a very strong performance here and acting alongside Judi Dench he never seems out of place. That being said, his character's failings often seem overblown. He is so rude to Philomena's daughter that it's remarkable that she ever agrees to speak to him again.

I'm not sure about the decision to keep showing cinefilm footage of her son's life without her all over the place. As much as it was good to have some stylistic touches, I didn't feel that one worked. At a point where Philomena does not know what has happened to her son, it feels wrong that we should be seeing clips of her son with his new parents.

I must also admit, I wasn't really buying into the message at the end. That's not a big criticism, since being able to discuss a film's message is part of the point. I don't have to agree with the filmmakers. I simply need to have understood what their point was and to have had that point displayed to me in a clear and plausible fashion.

There's a message of forgiveness here, but it must be noted that it is forgiveness with a twist to it. I still don't think forgiveness was the right response, but I can understand its importance in the context.

Philomena has its flaws, but even though I felt strangely distant for much it, this is still a film with a powerful message and strong emotional resonance in places.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 28th, 2014 06:24 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't have even noticed this movie Philomena had it not been for a Vanity Fair article I read about the Irish 'laundries' where women who were 'pregnant out of wedlock' were sent. Reading that article about this woman whom I believe the movie was based on loosely ( I think, I'm not totally certain) was what made me become interested in renting the film. The real story involved a woman who was given up for adoption and hadn't seen her real birth mother in decades. I understand that these laundries were ine existence until about a decade ago, and they were brutal places for a young woman to be, almost like a prison.
Aug. 28th, 2014 08:16 pm (UTC)
Oh Philomena was definitely a real woman. It's absolutely a true story.

I wasn't aware that any of those laundries were still running in the 90s. I don't know if they were still running in the same way towards the end, but if they were then that really is shocking.

I was of the impression that many such places were not run by nuns at all, but were asylums run by the government. In the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century it was believed to be a shame on women if they were pregnant out of wedlock, so Philomena's situation wouldn't have been so strange. That Philomena was at least allowed to spend time with her child while they searched for new parents is an opportunity many in her situation would not have been afforded.

But Philomena's situation seemed particularly mild by comparison to some of the brutal ways children were treated in Church-run schools in Ireland. There've been some pretty horrific cases uncovered of physical and sexual abuse of children in establishments run by the Church. So I think the timing of this film also makes it seem rather less shocking than it might have seemed.

I'd also say that they seemed to be rather underplaying the brutality of the laundry where Philomena was actually kept. We are told how much she would have to pay to leave, but the strictness of her living conditions is mostly glossed over.

What really WAS shocking was the way the Church was covering everything up. And I think that speaks to ALL the recent scandals. Most organisations which treated women the way Philomena was treated would be quick to apologise for their actions, noting how society's attitudes have changed. But the nuns are prepared to lie and make excuses, trying to cover up their involvement. If I was still a Christian myself, I'd consider this most un-Christian behaviour. It seems quite clear that these nuns are entirely unapologetic. They are unable to admit their mistakes because they have learnt absolutely nothing from those past errors.
Aug. 28th, 2014 09:18 pm (UTC)
Actually LOL it doesn't shock me at all the way the Church covered things up. As a semi-practicing Catholic I've always had many issues with how the Church views women and its political 'views' ( but that's another story for another day).

The article I read depicted the laundries as brutal places where the women were viewed as mere workhorses and were treated as the 'immoral sinners' the nuns viewed them as.

I think what saddens me most is how women were blamed ( it's like The Scarlet Letter) for getting pregnant as if it was entirely
their fault. It speaks close to home because many years ago, my mom got pregnant ( keep in mind this was long before abortion became legal) in the late 1950's. I have a half brother who is 55 years old that she gave up for adoption. She was placed in a Catholic home for 'unwed mothers' but she told me she was treated very well there. Five years ago, her son contacted her through a letter and sent a photo. It was stunning to both of us that part of her past.

But no, I'm not surprised about the Church covering these things up. Not in the least. Now, I want to go rent this movie :)
Aug. 29th, 2014 11:29 pm (UTC)
Saw images from Dirty Pretty Things, stopped scrolling. Dang, that movie knows how to punch you in the gut. Definitely left a lasting impression, and I haven't seen it in probably a decade.
Aug. 30th, 2014 12:44 am (UTC)
Yeah, it made an impression on me too. And to think part of my attraction to the film was because it had "Amelie" in it, y'know?
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )



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