Saints and Sinners
Stephen Frears’ Philomena recounts the true story of a devout Catholic woman, Philomena Lee, who was sent to a convent when she became pregnant as an unwed teenager. During her imprisonment she and many other girls were subjected to abuse, but nothing was more traumatising than the nun’s exploitative side business of selling their babies to rich Americans. Fifty years later, a now elderly Philomena contacts a disgraced journalist Martin Sixsmith to embark on a search for the son who was stolen from her at birth.
For a long time now the news has been peppered with stories of the Catholic Church’s heinous sins and while documentaries such as Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God have tackled the controversial subject head on, there have been relatively few feature films that have done so. In highlighting the atrocious crimes of stealing babies from vulnerable teenage parents, selling them illegally overseas and burning the records to ensure their parents could never be traced, Philomena offers a rare portrayal of the Catholic Church’s failings. However, though it’s certainly an indictment of this particular abuse, it remains reserved in its convictions and tries hard not to tarnish the entire religion for these individual crimes. It’s potent, yet forgiving in nature, which makes its message all the more meaningful.
Philomena is a conventional human interest tale, full of heartbreak and feeling, but elevates its relative simplicity with authentic characters, a consistent tone and surprisingly rich comedy. In so many other cases this level of sentimentality would be too sickly sweet, but Philomena is expertly balanced and its tenderness and sincerity is countered with bold comedy and edgy dialogue. The result is a script that avoids the overt melodrama that would otherwise plague a narrative that hinges on a sentimental tone.
The narrative focuses on the unconventional companionship between Philomena and Martin Sixsmith during their investigative adventure. Steve Coogan matches the quality of his script with his finest performance yet. As Sixsmith, he abandons the divisive Alan Partridge idiosyncrasies that have played a part in each of his cinematic roles and opts instead for a different brand of character who feels entirely real and flawed in a natural way.
His smartass persona is the perfect counterpart for Judi Dench’s saintly Philomena. Where Coogan’s Sixsmith is cynical and serious, Dench is gentle, charming and deeply affecting and delivers an uncomplicated performance that feels entirely authentic. Their delightful rapport and hilarious exchanges add necessary comedy to an otherwise bleak tale.