One woman’s quest exposes systemic wrongs and a personal truth
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Stephen Frears seems to be tiptoeing a fine line with “Philomena,” which is based on BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” The investigative narrative focused on Sixsmith’s efforts on behalf of Philomena Lee (played in the film by Dame Judi Dench) to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption following her conception – out of wedlock, a no-no within her strict Irish-Catholic community. Sixsmith, portrayed onscreen by Steve Coogan, who also happens to be the co-author of the script, is a snarky intellectual with no desire to waste his precious time on a human interest story like Lee’s. To make matters worse, Sixsmith would never bother spending more than a passing second in the presence of a simple salt-of-the-Earth type, true believer like Lee.
Frears and Coogan, along with co-scenarist Jeff Pope, seem to have stacked the deck heavily in the favor of the elitist sensibilities of Sixsmith. Watching the film is akin to settling in for an episode of “Real Time With Bill Maher” with Sixsmith standing in for the hip comic, displaying his disdain for religion, piety and simple, good living like it is the one and only truth.
Of course, the Catholic Church perpetrated a horrible wrong against Lee and every other young woman who was coerced into giving up their children, because religion is always wrong. While Lee was, is now and ever shall be a naïve bumbler because she lacks the humor and the worldliness that Sixsmith claims as a birthright, despite the fact that he finds himself in the midst of a downward spiral in his career and his personal life – so close to the bottom, in fact that his one last chance to claw and scratch his way back happens to be the human interest story of Philomena Lee and the search for her child.
Funny thing though about the odds-tipping in “Philomena,” because the counter-balance – in the form of Dench – makes all the difference. Dench disappears inside Philomena Lee. The carefully nuanced consideration that informed her responses during the press conference for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” – so engaged by the promotional game, whereas her co-star Tom Wilkinson could barely suffer through the foolishness of it all – gets stowed away in the closet, and in its place, a simple shawl – a workmanlike layer for warmth with no sense of fashion.
Lee, as seen here, is a woman of basic and quite obvious needs. She accepts what is before her, in black and white. Life is all surface, all plain text. She cannot see the subtext. It is why she finds herself in this situation in the first place. Philomena Lee didn’t dare to question the doctrine of the Church or the idea she might have been able to break free and raise her child on her own.
For most of the film, Sixsmith – and, by extension, the audience – pities her to a certain extent, or fails to see the depth of her character. We imagine “Philomena” is really the story of Martin Sixsmith, the crusading righter of wrongs, the intellectual/liberal champion. However, Frears, Coogan and Pope knew the truth all along. The narrative game was indeed rigged to breach our hearts, and maybe even our souls a bit, moreso than our thick know-it-all heads. Truth, it seems, is not merely a matter of fact. It has a sense and sensibility as simply complex as Philomena Lee herself, a woman who understands it doesn’t matter when you go looking for the truth. It will always be there waiting.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.