There is a potentially exploitative blockbuster at the heart of Philomena (2013), and as it unfolds we expect, at any moment, to be drawn into yet another example of cinema as propaganda. A film with the theme of abusive nuns in an Irish Catholic asylum lording over unwed mothers is an invitation for at least one audience-as-silly-putty moment, molded by hackneyed writing and line delivery. It never happens. Instead, we are treated to a sensitively written, smartly balanced drama, which never succumbs to overt sentimentality or cynicism.
Such restraint takes a collaborative effort, and Philomena benefits from the directing of Stephen Frears, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screen treatment of Martin Sixsmith’s book, along with Judi Dench’s astute performance.
Dench’s portrayal of a devout, elderly survivor of convent abuse is one of touchingly nuanced wisdom. Sadistically dehumanized for actually experiencing puberty and having a child out of wedlock, Philomena Lee spends fifty years searching for the son that her religious superiors sold to an American couple.
After a chance meeting with the recently disgraced journalist (and atheist) Martin Sixsmith, Philomena embarks on a search for her son, which leads them both to Washington, D.C. and a heartbreaking discovery.
Sixsmith (Coogan), a lapsed Catholic himself, paradoxically (and complexly) proves to be both Philomena’s foil and means to the truth. Aptly, it is not closeted prayer, but aid from a fellow human that manifests Philomena’s invocation.
Although cinematic treatments of religion have traditionally been fodder for mainstream audiences, Philomena somewhat slipped under the radar in its opening run. The reason for that is simple. To quote Paul Gauguin: “In every generation the least cultivated taste has the largest appetite.” However, after receiving a plethora of good reviews and (later) awards, Philomena found its audience and, even with its nonpartisan approach, still managed to provoke a good percentage of them.
Accusations that the film was arty, anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, anti-Reagan, pro-gay, and had a liberal agenda flew fast and furious, despite the fact that the film, like the book, was nonfiction. The “silence is golden” species of nuns serve, albeit unintentionally, as the model for this defensiveness. Upon hearing the confession of the nun Mary Johnson, who had engaged in a lesbian relation, Mother Teresa told her charge: “Talking about the sin is as great as the sin itself.”
In the Washington Post review of Philomena, critic Ann Hornaday describes a portrayal of “unfathomable cruelty.” One supposes she is blessed for thinking so, but it is completely fathomable to anyone who has been subjected to the abuses of organized religion. In addition to the religious, predatory aggression vented against young, stained, single mothers, a second sin is lensed here: the sin of “not talking about it.”
The offended faction of Philomena’s audience echoes the shadowy nuns here. Any mention of wrong deeds perpetrated in the name of religion, or all spoken criticisms, are a sinful blemish on the pedestaled institution and an insult to the faith.
Even the secular worshipers of the iconic Ronald Reagan jumped into the film’s maelstrom. Outraged that the film made a passing reference to that administration’s cutting of AIDS funds (which it did), the extremists labeled the film as having a liberal agenda, despite the fact that Philomena’s lost son worked for President Reagan and Philomena herself is, primarily, a religious conservative. One is forced to conclude, from said reactions, that the coveted outcome for AIDS victims is “let them die in the streets.”
Hornaday identifies with Martin Sixsmith’s sense of outrage. She is less understanding of Philomena’s tenacious faith and her (seemingly) having turned a blind eye to the vestals’ crimes. In this, Hornaday mirrors the secular world at large in failing to grasp the pulse of many abuse victims who insist that the abusers, the silent elite, or the self-appointed keepers of the flame will not solely own the religious tradition or have access to the Kingdom’s keys.
In sharp contrast, those who desire nothing less than a perfectly polished veneer for the religious establishment will indeed find room for offense, regardless of the film’s inevitably impartial approach. Philomena‘s right-wing critics are predictably hypocritical in their complaints of the film’s nonchalant portrayal of a deceased gay man. These same critics have made no, or damn little, reference to guilty heterosexual fornicators because, in the 21st century, hell, we are all convicted of that.