Given its centrality to a lot of people’s life, religion is pretty under-represented on the small screen, whether in a positive or negative way. Perhaps this isn’t that surprising. Movies are a consumer business, and there is little that is more decisive than one’s choice of faith. One may as well make a movie about Manchester United or the LA Lakers.
Philomena is a movie about religion which manages to show both the darkest and most attractive sides to religion without ever feeling preachy or overstating its case.
The (real-life) story concerns Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) a former BBC journalist who has just been fired from his job as a Labour spin-doctor. He happens to come across Philomena (Judi Dench), an elderly lady who wishes to find out what happened to her son after he was sold to a rich American family by nuns in Ireland fifty years before.
As the two get closer to finding the truth there is a tension as Martin wishes justice for the clearly wronged Philomena, while she is only interested in answers and has no time for retribution.
I suppose there are a a number of different ways of reading the tale of Philomena’s life. We can see it as a sign of how far we’ve come that the idea of sending pregnant teenagers to convents to work in the laundries is seen as abhorrent. Although, the film still depicts the Catholic Church as an institution all too slow to own up to its mistakes.
We can also see it as a triumph of the human spirit. Philiomena maintains a dignity and grace through out, despite the terrible treatment of her in her youth. We can view her as “an inspiration”, someone who wants us to be a better person.
Perhaps it’s a story about over-coming cynicism. Martin sees Philomena’s story as a “fluff piece”; a way of doing something between jobs, but soon gets drawn into the injustice of the situation and the chance for a resolution. He also sees a woman who truly believes in something, an apparent contrast to the world of politics and journalism he has inhabited for so long.
Finally, we can see it as a story of one woman’s religious faith, a faith that is severely tested by the very people who should have been looking out for her. Despite this, she clings resolutely to her faith, it is the only thing that allows her to move on. Her religion may be the cause of her pain, but it also appears to be her remedy. It is this uneasy conclusion to the film that makes her story so fascinating.
Philomena then is an emotional film which never feels the need to over-sentimentalise or over-sensationalise its tale.