Philomena: Forgiveness in miniature

Ordinariness is under-rated; and Philomena is  a film which gives us the true story of a resolutely ordinary person finding it within herself to do something genuinely extraordinary. Steve Coogan is Martin Sixsmith, a BBC journalist turned new Labour spin doctor who’d found himself taking the fall for a mess not entirely of his own making. Suddenly at a loose end, he resolves to write books about Russian history, until he finds himself presented with a tempting possibility in his least favourite area of journalism: the human interest story. The human in question is Philomena (Judi Dench), now an old woman who as a teenager in Ireland had fallen pregnant to an older man and had been sent to a convent to learn some morals. The regime at the convent was strict; the young mothers were only allowed an hour a day with their children, the rest of the day taken up with religious, school and physical work. Philomena’s son is eventually sold to an American couple looking for a child to adopt; birth-mother and son seem destined to never meet again. In old age Philomena wants to find out once and for all what has happened, and Martin Sixsmith seems the man with the contacts to use and the ability to tell her story as it unfolds.

The film plays out as a portrait in miniature. It’s a portrait of elderly working class encountering middle-aged upper middle-class; of tertiary education meeting the school of life; of cynical atheism meeting obedient faith. As you’d expect with Steve Coogan involved as both male lead and writer, light comedy is key here and the two leads are perfect. Some of the banter is delightful, even if at times it jars with the emotional weight of what’s unfolding. With Stephen Frears as director (High Fidelity, The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons) the small-scale focus works well, the small inter-personal relating between the two leads working with a natural ease, so much so that at times we’re intruding behind doors that we’re tempted to feel should have remained closed to public viewing.

Where the film falls slightly short is that in that very compression we feel that we lose some perspective. Philomena’s story is told in flashback,  and though other young women are around and their stories touched on we never really get a sense of the truth that the title character’s pain is multiplied through disturbing numbers of other lives. Key plot revelations feel ever so slightly rushed and predictable. More time on the back story and context, a little more sense of the hard work of the search for answers would have given the film an even greater emotional and thematic punch. Despite all the strengths it ends up feeling slightly perfunctory.

Which is a shame because the film’s final moments hinge around a moment of remarkable forgiveness. It seems too easy for a character who tells us it was hard; not because of the performance but because we haven’t had quite enough time to feel the drawn out pain and frustration that has led to this point of remarkable grace. The audience is in no doubt of the sincerity or power of the deed; a little more time spent earlier in the piece would have allowed us to feel it in the guts and heart as much as we know it in our heads. That same compression means we also what could have been a fascinating and challenging parallel to the main story: Sixsmith has suffered his own, very different wrongs. What does this journey mean for him? Does the challenge resonate and reverberate, or does he file it under human interest? We don’t know, which means the story loses a powerful opportunity.

Still, when all is said and done we’re left with an inescapable question. Can I do that? Not in the character’s shoes, but in my own life. I have been wronged – as we all have. Not in the same way as Philomena has been, but in ways large and small. Forgiveness is offered and required of each of us. This film presents us with a gentle, but no less uncomfortable for it, challenge to both receive it and give it. For a portrait in miniature that’s no small achievement.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

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