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  • Post last modified:January 13, 2018

Philomena: The Searchers


philomenaThese past two months I have seen two other films by Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and the recent HBO drama Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight. These experiences made me think of how the director’s career has evolved over the years. The first film was a bold comedy about Thatcherite Britain, immigrants and homosexual love across all borders, and the other one is a fairly conservative drama about old, white men on the sidelines of the 1960s turmoil. Frears is not really a man who takes risks anymore.

Still, Philomena, his second movie this year, shows why he’s still a force to be reckoned with even when he chooses safe paths.

In 1950s Ireland, Philomena (Judi Dench) is a teenager who’s been abandoned by her family and lives in a convent run by Catholic nuns. During a night at an amusement park, she has sex with her boyfriend and becomes pregnant. When her belly no longer can be hidden, the nuns are furious. The child is delivered without anything to relieve the pain, and she’s banished to the convent’s laundry room where she works seven days a week, with only a few hours visitation rights to her child. When the boy is a few years old, the nuns set him up for adoption against Philomena’s wishes… and the child is out of her life. 50 years later, she’s desperate to find out what became of him, and her daughter contacts Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former journalist who’s just lost his Downing Street job in a scandal…

Frears refusing to be subtle
The story is based on real events, and has been adapted with great skill by Coogan and Jeff Pope, a former reporter himself who certainly understands Sixsmith and makes him believable to any journalist who sees this film. Still, it’s not a movie for that crowd, but a much broader audience. Philomena marks a special achievement for both writers as they have tackled a difficult challenge.

In the beginning of the film, Sixsmith sings a very familiar tune to journalists – so-called human interest stories are sappy and pointless. But as so many reporters have learned over the years, behind the tears and simplistic drama there’s real people who suffer and have extraordinary tales to tell. In Philomena Lee’s case, the story of how she went looking for the boy she was forced to give up shone a light on the Catholic Church in Ireland whose representatives believed in “shaming” teenage, unwed mothers and taking their children away from them. Don’t expect Frears to be subtle on this issue; the nuns are straight out of a horror movie, religious fanatics who might as well be doing the work of Satan, considering the consequences of their actions. But he also shows that the church has changed, although its willingness to expose the evil of its past actions is less than satisfactory.

The filmmakers’ hearts are unconditionally with Philomena (beautifully played by Dench), a woman who has every reason to hate the church but still has taken the teachings of Christ to her heart – which is unfathomable to Sixsmith, an atheist. This character could have become too “Coogan-esque” (with too many oneliners) but the two screenwriters masterfully overcome difficulties, making sure this take on Sixsmith plays to Coogan’s strengths yet remains credible. The dialogue is simply wonderful.

I’m sure that most audiences will cry a little, and laugh a little. Stephen Frears may not be making politically charged films about immigration anymore… although gay love has a prominent place in Philomena as well. But he has indeed turned into one of those filmmakers who know exactly how to get the right emotions out of his material.

Philomena 2013-Britain-U.S.-France. 98 min. Color. Produced by Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward, Gabrielle Tana. Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope. Book: Martin Sixsmith (“The Lost Child of Philomena Lee”). Cast: Judi Dench (Philomena Lee), Steve Coogan (Martin Sixsmith), Mare Winningham (Mary), Michelle Fairley, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Ruth McCabe.

BAFTA: Best Adapted Screenplay. Venice: Best Screenplay.

Last word: “I had already worked with Judi and I knew how invested she is. Steve [Coogan] co-signed and coproduced the film, which guaranteed a de facto investment on his side. In reality, Steve constantly asked me to correct him. He was worried he would go off track and give too much space to his tendency for comedy. He would say: ‘if it’s too much and I start to rant, just make a sign with your hand towards the bottom…’. I did it on several occasions and he appreciated it. We thus had a language of our own and everything went on very well.” (Frears, Cineuropa)

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