Philomena is a funny movie – funny “humorous” but also funny “strange.” In a year of gigantic, imposing, life or death epics about the nature of humanity and broad, satiric, personality-focused statements on “America” as it has shaped up of late, Philomena sticks out. It is a relatively small movie about an elderly woman and a reporter working together to track down the son the woman gave up for adoption fifty years earlier. The movie is mostly conversations and quiet moments of recollection and recompense, or at least the desire for it. Philomena will make you cry and laugh in equal measure.
Philomena will also make you scratch your head, because while it is somewhat small and straight-forward, it is also curiously aimed and frustratingly unsatisfying. It feels like it wants to condemn the Catholic church, and it does this to a degree, but in the end, it misses its mark, and it knows it. This is due in large part to one of the personalities at the story’s center – Philomena herself.
Philomena the woman has suffered terribly at the hands of the Catholic church. When she was a young girl, she participated in a night of pre-marital sexual reverie, bore unavoidable evidence of that tryst – a son – and was made to work in an abbey to repay the nuns who gave her a home when her father kicked her out in shame. Those same nuns, with no regard for Philomena’s feelings, sold her son to adoptive parents. The nuns called Philomena’s pain her “penance,” and she has wrestled with her guilt, both for the sex that led to the child and for giving him up, her entire life.
And yet, Philomena has held fast to her faith. She is a kind, compassionate woman who has never abandoned her Catholicism. She prays constantly, attends mass, and confesses. She is wary of sharing her story with the reporter lest he demonize the Catholic church in his eventual story. She would rather not find her son than bring shame on her church.
The movie hinges entirely on the performances of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan as Philomena Lee and Martin Sixsmith, respectively. They are both excellent. This past movie year was packed with big characters, but Dench and Sixsmith give us two subdued, restrained performances. Philomena’s constant negotiation between guilt and grace plays subtly in Dench’s features. Her’s is a weary faithfulness. Coogan flits back and forth between cynicism and confusion. Sixsmith doesn’t believe in Philomena’s God (to the end), but he is gobsmacked by her goodness and doesn’t quite know how to fit it into the world he knows.
Eventually, the movie reaches a resolution that some will feel is “crowdpleasing” or “expected” or “the way these things go” at the movies. Maybe so, but for all the fantastic things I have seen this year at the movies – exploding space stations and impossible train chases and dragons Scrooge McDucking it in mountains full of gold – I’ve not seen anything as surprising and fantastic as what Philomena does at the end of her story. It may be “the way these things go” at the movies, but it is far too often not the way things go in real life.
People are prone to bitterness and hardheartedness and spite. It’s difficult to forgive. It’s difficult to show grace. It’s difficult to remain faithful to a God when God’s avowed representatives treat you so terribly. Philomena the movie is befuddled at Philomena the woman. I would be too if I didn’t know the Christ she serves. He forgave his executioners as the blood drained from his body. Again and again and again, Philomena chooses grace as her heart continues to break.
Is Philomena very critical of the Church? Yes. Does it depict Philomena’s faith as a primarily personal matter disconnected from community? Yes. Do I wish the movie focused a little more on the good Christians in her life, like the nun that gives her a picture of her son, who helped her maintain hope in Christ and in Christ’s Church? Yes.
But I also applaud the film for being honest about how confusing vibrant Christian faith appears from the outside. When Christians are forgiving, graceful, and selfless, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s more fantastic than anything else humanity can imagine. It’s frustratingly incongruous with the world as we experience it every day. It’s seems like the kind of thing that can only happen at the movies where impossible things are made real.