‘Philom­ena’ be­comes preachy, loses its way

The Washington Times Daily - - Television -

The plot of “Philom­ena” seems pre­pos­ter­ous. A teenage girl forced to give up her out-of-wed­lock child in 1950s Catholic Ire­land searches for him half a cen­tury later, only to dis­cover he car­ried his own se­cret shame: He was a clos­eted ho­mo­sex­ual in the high­est ranks of the Repub­li­can Party in the U.S.

But this sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic story is, at least in its broad out­lines, true. And, more shock­ing still, it’s just one trou­bling tale out of the many that the era pro­duced. In this movie based on the book “The Lost Child of Philom­ena Lee” by Martin Six­smith, the un­par­al­leled Judi Dench cap­tures the eter­nal sor­row of one woman who rep­re­sents scores more in the United King­dom and be­yond — not to men­tion the un­known suf­fer­ing of the chil­dren they sur­ren­dered. Yet the re­sult is a film that ul­ti­mately feels false. The film­mak­ers suc­cumbed to the temp­ta­tion to fo­cus on the “lessons” Philom­ena’s story holds for the rest of us at the ex­pense of the mov­ing — and au­then­tic — hu­man story it­self.

Philom­ena has kept her se­cret for more than 50 years, but dur­ing a hol­i­day sea­son in the early 2000s de­cides she can bear the bur­den no more. She tells her daugh­ter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) about the lit­tle boy she bore as a teenager in a con­vent in Ro­screa, County Tip­per­ary. Philom­ena’s fa­ther had aban­doned her to the nuns when the preg­nancy be­came ob­vi­ous: “He was so shamed, he told ev­ery­one I was dead.”

There, Philom­ena (played mem­o­rably as a teenager by fea­ture film new­bie So­phie Kennedy Clark) toiled at the Mag­da­lene laun­dry along­side other girls in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions. “We were al­lowed to see our chil­dren for an hour a day. That was all.” Un­til one fate­ful day when her son, just a few years old, was given in adop­tion to a cou­ple from Amer­ica. Philom­ena never saw him again, de­spite re­peated trips to the con­vent over the decades: The nuns claimed they had no idea what had be­come of the boy.

The 70-year-old Philom­ena re­lates this story to jour­nal­ist Martin Six­smith (played by Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screen­play). Six­smith’s just been sacked from his com­mu­ni­ca­tions job in the Labour govern­ment and is look­ing for a story to re-launch his writ­ing ca­reer. But he has some­thing more se­ri­ous in mind than a “hu­man in­ter­est” story. He soon re­al­izes, of course, that the old woman’s “sappy” story is very se­ri­ous in­deed.

It turns out that the nuns sold chil­dren to rich Amer­i­cans look­ing to adopt. So “Philom­ena” be­comes a sort of odd-cou­ple road-trip film as the so­phis­ti­cated Lon­don jour­nal­ist takes the work­ing-class ex-nurse to the States in search of her son.

Miss Dench gives a typ­i­cally on­tar­get per­for­mance, but Mr. Coogan’s many tal­ents are wasted here. The English co­me­dian’s overly earnest per­for­mance pro­vides no light mo­ments in a drama that could have used a few. His screen­writ­ing isn’t pitch-per­fect, ei­ther: No Amer­i­can would talk of some­one’s ca­reer “whilst at the White House.”

Some re­view­ers have de­cried “Philom­ena” as a tract against the Catholic Church, but the ti­tle char­ac­ter her­self is full of for­give­ness, for the in­sti­tu­tion and those that peo­ple it. It’s the Amer­i­can part of the story that comes clos­est to a ser­mon, as we learn from his col­leagues that Philom­ena’s ho­mo­sex­ual son felt “un­com­fort­able” work­ing for Ron­ald Rea­gan. We’re to un­der­stand that some of the Ir­ish nuns who kept Philom­ena and her lost child apart for­ever might have had vary­ing, even mys­te­ri­ous mo­tives. But Wash­ing­ton, D.C., is shown only in un­mis­tak­able shades of black and white. TI­TLE: CRED­ITS:

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Judi Dench, as the ti­tle char­ac­ter in “Philom­ena,” trav­els to the U.S. in search of the child taken from her years be­fore. Steve Coogan plays the jour­nal­ist ac­com­pa­ny­ing her.

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