Forgiveness is never easy to grant. Some people have trouble just trying to forgive the slightest of offenses, let alone major (and sometimes unforgiveable) offenses. From the 18th to the late 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church condoned the practice of convents (or Magdalene institutions as they came to be known) in Europe, Australia, and North America taking in unwed pregnant women (who were often abandoned by their families), assisting these women with giving birth (although in the most painful of circumstances), and then force the new mothers to work every single day as penance for their “sin” and to pay for the cost of their stay (which was really nothing more than labor exploitation).
In Ireland, these convents (also known as Magdalene Laundries, which became more prison-like over time) would take away the children from their mothers so that they could be adopted by rich American couples who were willing to pay the right price (adoption rights were signed away by the mothers as one of the conditions of them being allowed to stay at the convent). This happened thousands of times, and Philomena Lee was just one of the women who endured such an ordeal. I finally got to see Stephen Frears’ terrific film Philomena a while back, and it certainly increased the amount of disgust I already had for the Catholic Church.
2013’s Philomena centers on Philomena Lee, an elderly woman who reminisces about the son she was forced to give up more than 50 years before. Martin Sixsmith is a former Labour advisor for the British government who’s planning to write a book on Russian history when he gets an offer to get back into journalism. Their paths cross when Philomena’s daughter meets Martin at a party and suggests her mother’s story as a human interest piece for him to write about. He rejects the offer at first, but eventually accepts after reflecting on it. The journey Philomena and Martin embark on to find Philomena’s long-lost son first take them to the convent where Philomena used to work at and then to the United States, where a number of surprises await them.
The performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan were just superb. Dench brings a good amount of charm in an Oscar-nominated performance of a woman who continually maintains her faith in God (even as she struggles at times). Coogan’s Martin is a terrific foil for Philomena; a nonbeliever who comes to hate what the convent did to Philomena. Perhaps the most striking thing about the film is how funny it is (especially when considering the subject matter). This is a great credit to co-writers Coogan and Jeff Pope, who received a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nod for adapting Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Alexandre Desplat wrote a wonderful, Oscar-nominated score that doesn’t blatantly tug at the heart strings. Desplat’s subtle approach for the music has made it one of the best scores of 2013.
Frears’ direction was solid as ever. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography was also top-notch. I especially liked how the flashback scenes were given a grainy, color-saturated look that gives them a home movie-type of feel. Perhaps the second-most striking thing about the film is how [SPOILER ALERT!] Philomena was able to forgive what had happened to her. Coogan’s Martin remarks how, if that had happened to someone close to him, he wouldn’t be able to forgive the nuns (a sentiment I strongly share and, I suspect, most viewers do as well). The story of Philomena Lee is a fascinating one and, despite the artistic liberties taken with the true story, I highly recommend this Best Picture Oscar nominee.