Join me in an experiment. Sit at your monitor and slowly pronounce Philomena. Doesn't it sound lovely? My favorite is the liquid sound at the end of the first syllable, right before the triad of vowels. It seems an impossibly perfect name, with sounds that recall philosophy and flowers, right before on that satisfied “ah”. The story of the woman who bears that name is also lovely, full of twists as an devout woman goes on the road with a young atheist reporter. It's such a lovely story that I have to wonder how it ended up in a movie that treats her with scorn, right before letting her have a happy ending.
Philomena is another step in what is turning out to be a series of decreasing returns from Stephen Frears. On paper, it's a knockout with the charming Philomena played by the always excellent Judi Dench. Then there's Steve Coogan, an across-the-pond favorite of a small percentage of American consumers. I am among them, and love quoting Coogan's Alan Partridge and his “action slacks”, while also admiring how studios continue to try and promote his talents on our shores. The pedigree is superb.
The problem is Philomena is not well served by Philomena. When it's not humoring her by engaging in the kind of theistic debates bored college kids have during their first weeks away from home, it holds her at a distance and uses her as a means of manufacturing emotional peaks. At several times in the film Coogan's character is accused of using the poor woman as a means of rebuilding his shattered relationship. What, then, does is say of Coogan that the film he had a hand in writing is less interested in her feelings than Koko – a talking gorilla?
That may seem an extreme comparison, but consider how many times the elderly Philomena (Dench) is put down by her companion Martin (Coogan) during their journey. Consider the following statements in the context of their journey as she is trying to find out what happened to the son taken away from her by the nunnery she was forced into as a teenager. Early in the film, Martin says that Philomena's wish to find her son is a human interest story, a “Story about weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people.” As they journey he sees her charm of St. Christopher, the saint of traveling, and he says, “I used to think that St. Christopher was a bit of a Mickey Mouse saint.” And what of his final suggestion that, if Jesus encountered a despicable nun in a wheelchair, He would tip her over?
The worst part of all these statements is that Martin is constantly correct, tricking Philomena and those around her into doing what he wants in order to get the story he wants. Coogan tried to give the film a little bit of heart by haing Martin go through a crisis of conscience over whether to continue pushing Philomena or not. But it doesn't change that Philomena's story is constantly told through the eye of an atheist who sees her faith as silly and her story as a ticket back to success. For Coogan, a man I adore, it hints at a much darker side to his charm that is brought back down by cheery story beats of success.
At it's worst, Philomena feels like intellectual pandering gussied up in feel-good terms. The widespread success it's been met with worries me. There is little respect for Philomena as a person and the rampant smugness of Martin's atheism, combined with his biting wit, made me chuckle quite a few times but that faded as I realized the film was doing what Martin eventually realizes is wrong. I envy Philomena's faith, but Philomena mocks it, especially when you consider the hollow message that closes the film – Christian forgiveness is fine for a bit, but the need to punish wins in the long-run.
So why the indifference, why not outright dislike? Because, despite the script, Stephen Frears manages a few images that really try to get inside Philomena's mind. Consider the scene where her son is taken away. Philomena watches from across the yard through two panes of glass, and the prospective parents caress her son's hair and rub him like a dog. The windows do not reflect Philomena's face, all she can do is watch her son be treated like a pet.
That one scene almost redeems the whole film. It transforms a heart-tugging story told with disrespectful smugness to an illuminating look at the class system of England – a subject that introduced me to Frears years ago with Dirty Pretty Things. Then when talk goes back to what Philomena consumes for entertainment, or Martin reporting his observations, the class dynamic becomes difficult to ignore. During Martin's crisis I was hoping for that breakthrough, where he realized his privilege makes it easy to distance himself from Philomena's purity, but then it just went back to using her to get to the next milestone.
Coogan is superb, and I laughed at some of his jokes. Dench sparkles, and I felt a delightful warmth as she asked questions of her Mexican cook not out of ignorance, but of curiosity. She still wants to learn about the world, even though she seems so sheltered from it. That's a peek into the Philomena that hides along the edges, one that can't pretend we get by on intellectual superiority alone.
Directed by Stephen Frears.
Screenplay written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope.
Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.