Shame on me for assuming Philomena would be precisely the type of “based-on-a-true-story” sentimental feature I hate. Shame on me, because Stephen Frears’ Philomena is a great deal more than that.
Because ‘human interest story’ is a euphemism for stories about weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people, to fill newspapers read by vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people. Not that you are.
That quote said it all, and it said it within the first fifteen minutes of the film. It was said by Steve Coogan, playing Martin Sixsmith, telling one woman why another elderly woman’s story wasn’t worth writing about. It was curt, honest, cruel, and wrong. And clear that what Mr. Sixsmith was really referring to, were stories about women, for women. Those are the stories not worth writing about.
Philomena does a great deal to prove that notion wrong.
Philomena is a story about stories.
And the way we experience our own stories.
Martin has just been fired for a story he told – or one that he told one way, and is being mangled into something far more inflammatory. Philomena spends her days imagining the story of a son that was taken from her, unable to rest for the what-ifs playing in her head: what if he’s homeless? what if he’s a drug addict? – the story is never-ending and wrenching, because she doesn’t actually know it.
What we are given in Philomena are two different methods to telling and experiencing story.
With journalism, it is the nature of reporters to dig for their story. And it works in everyone’s favor here: finding people Philomena herself could never have located, forcing reluctant parties to speak about what happened, and ultimately pushing her to continue on with the journey until all answers have been uncovered and justice served.
Of course, the story Philomena wants is just that – a story for story’s sake. Where Martin intends to publish and benefit from said publication, Philomena only wants to sleep soundly knowing what truly happened to her son.
Her methods don’t include unnecessary digging (sometimes to her detriment), but they also don’t include a desire for justice (something Martin would do well to learn from). Often, her seeming lack of anger toward the Catholic Church that took her child is frustrating for Martin and the viewer. Just as often, her ability to seek her story, reclaim it, and move on is more than admirable – it’s beautiful; a testament to the power of faith.
Faith is more than religion, and it’s more than belief in the individual.
Yes, for Philomena, faith is a pretty traditional concept. Her’s is rooted wholly in Catholicism, and her strength comes from that relationship with God. It gives her an unbelievable and enviable ability to forgive those that have done wrong. It can also be a crutch when she wants to give up the search and head back home.
Philomena’s faith is a religious one. But when that organization fails her, she is able to find it, and inspire it, in her relationship with other people – like Martin.
Martin, staunchly nonreligious, with a brewing dislike (if not downright hatred for the Catholic church), might be seen as faithless. And initially, at that first party after he’s fired and asked to write a “human interest story,” he is. But where Martin is ultimately able to find faith, is in himself.
A strong sense of individualism provides a strength built from solving problems, uncovering stories, being loud, and getting to the point. It is a kind of a faith, but a bit of a selfish one. One that breaks down whenever he loses himself for a bit.
Where Philomena and Martin find the strongest faith, is within each other.
Philomena’s story is finally completed and told, thanks to Martin’s brasher qualities. And her faith in her religion and her own story, even stronger – she wants him to publish it, to share it, to help others.
And for Martin, the win is perhaps the biggest; in an elderly religious woman with terribly long winded summaries of romance novels, and all of the “weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant” qualities he once feared, he finds exactly the opposite. A strong, faithful, fiercely sharp woman whose story is more than one worth telling – it’s the best he’s ever told.
Philomena tells Martin, very matter-of-factly, that the sex she had that resulted in her child was not only good, it was revelatory. She didn’t even know she had a clitoris! She’s so honest, she’s so unashamed. With the gorgeous scenery of her homeland in the background, she is demonstrative of a person who is coming full circle – appreciating her life, sewing the ends together.
Watching Philomena try to take confession and fail is heartbreaking. For someone so steadfast in not only her personal faith, but the Catholic church, the breakdown of the system, and the knowledge of the wrong it committed against her and others, is overwhelming. For a moment, I’m afraid she’ll lose that faith that makes her the kind of woman who sees everyone as “one in a million.”
*You can watch Philomena on Netflix Instant.
If You Like it, Watch:
For another Judi Dench revelation, watch this romantic French drama set in a small French village in the 50’s. Besides the chocolate porn and gorgeous scenery, the Dame plays a woman much the opposite of Philomena – hard-living, heavy-drinking, and an all around good time. Pre-pirate Johnny Depp is also available for those that need something good to look at (I’m not immune to the joys of objectification). *Fun fact – first movie I ever purchased on DVD.
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon do their best (or worst) Michael Caine impressions for an hour and forty minutes. It’s a lot funnier than it sounds. It’s also a road trip movie, touring the finest restaurants in the English countryside. If you can’t get enough, there’s also The Trip to Italy, which again, involves a lot of back-and-forth Michael Caine impressions.
Want in on the February Challenge?
Start with the first post – All That Jazz is a Chick Flick
Check out previous picks, like yesterday’s Deadpool feature.
*This post contains affiliate links – I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. Of course, I stand by every film, dvd, or book I link you to, and hope you’re cool with this – if not, don’t click!*