Monday, December 2, 2013

Philomena

I know what you're thinking; another movie? Yes, for there is no such thing as too many movies. On Sunday I got together with a friend for lunch and threw in a movie for good measure. It was wonderful to see each other and catch up and doubly sweet to take in this lovely, heart-warming film together. Inspired by true events and starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, Philomena tells the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman searching for the child she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier.

Philomena was 18 years old when she had a child out of wedlock and in order to hide her family’s shame her father sent her to a convent to birth the child in the obscurity necessary to hide her sin. Required to basically serve as indentured servants for the nuns for four years to cover the cost of their care, Philomena toiled in the laundry every day and was allotted only one treasured hour a day in which she could visit her little boy, Anthony, in the convent’s nursery. When Anthony is 3 years old, he is torn from his mother’s arms and adopted (sold) to an American family, leaving Philomena with only a small black and white picture as a treasured memento of the little boy she loved and lost. Fifty years have passed and now an old woman, a retired nurse and mother, Philomena is still haunted by the sin she kept a secret, so on the eve of Anthony’s birthday, after lighting a candle for him in church, she confesses the truth to her adult daughter Jane.

Armed with this new information, Jane asks Martin Sixmith, an ex-journalist recently sacked from a cushy government job, to help her mother find the truth. At first turning Jane down, saying that such human interest pieces only appeal to weak and ignorant people, Martin quickly changes his mind when he sees the potential in resuscitating his career through a great story. As the two face road blocks placed by the none too helpful nuns, Martin turns to his journalistic contacts in the States, and so this very odd-couple is off to Washington, DC in search of both the truth and Philomena’s lost boy.

Oh what a wonderful, wonderful movie this was; an evocative mix of humor, drama, and a little of bit of suspense which once again, only a day after The Book Thief, left me shedding quite a few tears. The humor is found in Dench’s wonderful portrayal of this na├»ve and at times dotty old woman, who loves romance novels, and always sees the glass as half full. The drama is found in the injustices which took place to a young girl who placed her trust in people who should’ve cared a little more, and while the suspense isn’t the nail biting kind keeping you on the edge of your seat, it simmers below the surface as you anxiously await for both the truth of Anthony’s whereabouts to be revealed and, God willing, a happy reunion.

Philomena is an example to us all; when she could rage against the injustice of losing her son, she instead focuses on the fact that he was given a life she couldn’t have offered him, and when the nuns hide information, she says they’re doing their best. At every turn when given the opportunity to choose anger or bitterness, she instead embraces forgiveness. At its heart that is what this film is all about, forgiveness. The fact that in holding onto our hatred or bitterness towards those that wrong us, we truly only hurt ourselves. At one point in the film when certain facts are revealed and Martin is furious on Philomena’s behalf, she tells him she doesn’t want to be like him, always angry and hating, for it must be exhausting. Her words brought to mind a quote (from Buddha) which I’d seen on Pinterest: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”

Dame Judi Dench was a revelation in this film. In most of the films I’d seen her in before she’d always conveyed this regal, stoic and stern persona, but in this film she is so open, warm, and vulnerable. She’s pitch perfect in every scene; believably conveying a range of emotions, both her sadness as she longingly looks at her child’s photo, her hurt when she thinks he’d never given her a second thought, and her strength when she forgives the transgressions against her, for as Gandhi said “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” I’d never seen Steve Coogan in any film but I thought he did a wonderful job as the snobbish and sarcastic Martin, offering a cynical counterbalance to Philomena’s blind faith, as well as adding just the right amount of humor to keep otherwise heavy moments a little more light. Coogan also affectingly depicts his character's growth as a caring human being, as Phil (as Martin calls Philomena) becomes someone dear and so much more than just a story.

Truth is stranger than fiction they say, and that couldn’t be truer than in this film. Every twist and turn in this story touches your heart, even more so with the knowledge that it isn’t out of someone’s imagination but the all too true heartache lived by someone very real. In the movie, his editor tells Martin the story he’s writing has to be really, really happy or really, really sad to be good, and the film Philomena is a little of both; a poignant film which offers an incredible life lesson for us all.