Peter Mullan’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters was a howl of outrage at the Catholic Church in Ireland; a coruscating, raw drama about the abuse of young girls basically held prisoner by sadistic nuns after falling pregnant.
Stephen Freers’ Philomena has basically the same theme but is, by comparison, a gentle, warm story, which seems too timid to unveil the same power as Mullan’s film. Dench and Coogan have rightly garnered strong reviews for their performances, but the film’s script seems too scared of going for the emotional knockout punch, despite the real power of the story.
Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) is an ageing lady who reveals to her daughter (Maxwell Martin) that 50 years ago she was made pregnant out of wedlock and was imprisoned by nuns. Allowed to see her baby son for only one hour a day, she then watched helpessly as her baby, along with many others, were sold to rich Americans.
Appalled, Maxwell Martin approaches Martin Sixsmith at a party and blurts out the story. Sixsmith, a disgraced BBC journalist, now unemployed, explains he doesn’t do “human interest stories” as they are for “the feeble minded”. Nevertheless, he agrees to meet Philomena – at a Harvester – and they decide to try to find her long-lost son.
At this point the film becomes a sort of odd-couple gentle roas comedy, with the slightly stuffy, pretentious Sixsmith stuck with “daft old Irish lady” Philomena, who has terrible taste in books and clothes. At one point Sixsmith tells his wife he has just realised “what a lifetime of Readers Digest, the Daily Mail and wet romantic novels does to a person’s brain.”
Slowly though her steely determination and refusal to judge or blame anyone gets to Sixsmith, who, a lapsed Catholic himself, gets angry on her behalf. As they travel around America and get closer and closer to the truth she has to remind him it is her story, not his, but he struggles to keep his emotions in check.
What is clearly an emotional heart-string pulling story is fine, it’s the treatment that slightly disappoints. If Philomena is the simple-minded woman she claims to be, why does she suddenly pull out knowledge in key scenes that she had no right to know? When a huge (LGBT-related) revelation is made about her son she swishes it aside with a flick of the wrist. She gets far more annoyed with Sixsmith being rude to the hotel staff than she does with the people who stole her own son – surely that wasn’t the case in real life. For a wronged woman she is awfully fond of the Catholic Church, which took away her baby, even claiming at one point that the nuns “were just doing their job”.
It’s a bumpy, uneven ride, but there are delights to be had along the way, mainly in the performances. Dench is simply superb as the simple Philomena, constantly telling Sixsmith the plots of the dreadful Mills And Boon novels she keeps reading and declaring, “Well! I never saw that coming!” Coogan is something of a revelation, toning down the Alan Partridge and revealing a nice line in smarmy sarcasm but underneath, real tenderness.
There are a surprising number of laughs along the way, especially a running gag where Sixsmith, told to take up running by his doctor, keeps being passed by hundreds of faster joggers every time we see him in his shorts.
Overall verdict: An old-fashioned weepie that pulls its punches too often to have any really lasting power, but driven along by two great performances it has plenty of charm and warmth. Many will have a good cry at it, but few will remember it the same way as The Magdalene Sisters.
Review: Mike Martin