“It’s not an extraordinary story.”
Perhaps a funny thing to say when it’s coming from the man who wrote, produced and starred in Philomena, and I can’t necessarily say I agree with Steve Coogan having just left a special screening of the film at the Duke of York’s cinema in Brighton where he also appeared for a Q&A. As he said, there may be no earthquakes, and this is indeed ‘just’ the story of an ordinary woman. But really, it is so extraordinary in so many ways.
Philomena tells the story of a working class Irish woman who is impregnated at a young age. Philomena (Judi Dench) is forced by the nuns who care for her to work hard to pay for her sins, and along with the other young mothers she is allowed to see her child for an hour each day. One day, her son, Anthony, is taken away, and Philomena has never known what happened to him. Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is the journalist who decides to help Philomena find out what happened to her son as part of a human interest story, and the pair go on a journey to find Anthony.
Coogan made many references during the Q&A to the cynicism his character represents. There is a lot of conflict in the film between the cynicism of hard-nosed journalist Martin and the Catholic Philomena, and Coogan highlights this when Philomena asks if Martin believes in God. Martin says that this is a question that cannot be answered with a simple response, and he asks the same question of Philomena, to which she replies ‘Yes’. There is another moment that particularly stands out when Philomena enters a church in America on their search for Anthony when she goes to confess, but leaves without uttering a word and does not bless herself as she leaves. Despite the fact Martin is clearly cynical about God and religion, it is made evident that he does not want to be responsible for her loss of faith, and this appears to tally with Coogan’s feeling that creating the film made him – an atheist – more tolerant of the views of others, religious or otherwise.
One reservation I had as I watched the film was that at times the plot felt a little underdeveloped. This is based on a real story which has been documented in the real Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee (Original Edition), though Coogan estimated that it was roughly 50/50 in the balance of accuracy and creative license. However, Coogan greatly reassured me when he said that he set out to make a simple film. He quite rightly said that too few films are brave enough to be simple and sincere, and he wanted to make a film without irony. This completely came across. The film was intended to be ‘watchable’ in contrast to all the ‘cool’ films being churned out at the moment, and perhaps it was exactly this simplicity and gentle sensitivity that gave me my initial reservation.
The film as a piece of art is truly gorgeous. Dench is sublime as the witty, charming, hopeful Philomena, with Coogan playing the role of the stand-offish Sixsmith effortlessly. The whole story was warm and honest and exquisite in its bleakness, from the strange comfort of the desolate Irish fields to the greyish light that seems to be prevalent throughout their journey. But that is certainly not to say it was too sentimental; there were sparks of genuine humour, and the relationship between Philomena and the impatient journalist is electric. The silences, the weak late afternoon sun, Philomena’s visit to Martin’s Washington hotel room in the middle of the night just to thank him for helping her and the look they exchange. It is all so rich and it’s not trying to be clever, and this is what makes it all so electrifying.
The standout moment in the film comes when Philomena is watching video footage of her son, and Dench’s character is overwhelmed with love for the son she barely knew. Coogan chose Dench’s moments immaculately, and the film is filled with a poignancy that is never slushy or sickly, just extraordinarily human.
Really, this is what I mean when I say I disagree with Coogan’s assertion that this film is not extraordinary. The highly emotive storyline aside, it is extraordinary in its beautifully quiet portrayal of human relationships. Coogan also mentioned that it would have been easy to create a film picking on religion to appeal to ‘smug, liberal atheists’, and that it is much harder and much braver to talk about faith and love and positivity. The eventual friendship of Philomena and Martin and the relationship between Philomena and her long lost son is something Coogan knew we could all identify with, and he was so right. This is a film about love, but not romantic love, and the fact it executes this difficult territory with such dignity and sparkle is what makes it truly extraordinary.