May 31, 2014

Queer Review: Philomena (2013)

Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon

Thanks to astounding performance by Judi Dench, Philomena manages to present one of the most complex screen protagonists to arrive in theaters in recent memory. Loosely based upon the non-fiction account related in The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, Philomena tells the story of a woman searching for the child that was forcibly taken from her when she had it out of wedlock.

After having been fired from his gig as a government advisor, journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) finds himself at loose ends. When he is first approached with the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), he is reluctant to pursue it due to his snobbish attitude towards "human interest" stories. However, he does meet with her and learns more of her story. Philomena Lee was a young mother, who gave birth in a Catholic convent in the 1960's after a sexual encounter at a fair. In order to pay for having the child, Philomena worked for the convent for four years, but the convent sold the boy to American couple. When Philomena and Martin investigate, they find that all records of the adoption were burned and current leaders of the convent uncooperative. Following a lead, the pair travel to America, where they discover that Philomenas' child had his name changed to Michael and after growing up, had become a top ranked member of the Republican Party before passing away from AIDS in the nineties.

The Queering
Shaming is a powerful way to make people conform to excpected norms and nowhere is that more apparent than when it comes to the issue of human sexuality. At it's heart, this is a film about the power of shame and the ability to overcome it. Philomena Lee was shamed about a sexual encounter she had as a teenager and then shamed into keeping quiet when she was forced to give up her kid for adoption. Michael, her son, was also shamed into the closet about his sexual orientation while he worked his way up the ladder within the Republican party. Martin Sixsmith points these issues out to Philomena Lee when the two travel to the U.S. while looking for her son. Of course Lee surprises him by showing a great amount of forthrightness when it comes to sexuality in general.

Much of the humor in the film is derived from the interaction between Lee, who reads romance novels and the more cynical Sixsmith, who finds her naïve. One extended sequence has her describing the plot of a trite romance novel while he looks like he wishes he could anyplace else. However, the most interesting parts of the movie are the philosophical debates that come up between the two. Given that these debates are clearly influenced by each characters' life experience, they are more interesting than your typical dry philosophical debates about "Is there a God?" or "If there is a God, why would he allow suffering to exist?" As an atheist, Sixsmith has no issue with criticizing the Catholic nuns who kept Lee and Michael from reconnecting before the latter died. Surprisingly, Lee remains a devoted Catholic to the very end, even after it is revealed that the nuns kept Michael from reconnecting with her when he traveled to the orphanage to find her.

As for Michael Hess, I found myself wondering what life would be like for a man who chose to work for the Republican Party, rising all the way up to become Chief Legal Counsel of the Republican National Committee. What does it take to work within a group that actively hates you? What did Hess think of Reagans' long public silence on the issue? Was the fact that when he traveled to the Ireland his face already was showing Kaposi's sarcoma affect how cooperative the nuns were?

Ultimately, the strength of Philomena lies in it's ability to be emotionally affecting without resorting to cheap melodrama. The performances drive the movie, along with the smart script and complex characters. A little philosophy on the side helps things immeasurably as well.

Philomena is just about worth the amount of effort one would use to track down a lost relative in order to see.

The Rating
3 and 1/2 stars out 4


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