Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

04 December 2013

Angels and Old Irish Ladies

Stephen Frears' Philomena is a star vehicle. This is the only real approach to the movie that makes any sense, as far as I can tell. I say this mostly because there simply isn't much to this movie. An old woman's son was taken from her when he was very small and when she was just a teenager.

By evil nuns.

And now, fifty years later, she tries to find out what happened to him.

This is a small story, and one I rather thought would be more emotional affecting than I eventually found it to be. In its favor, Frears's film admits its "human-interest-story angle" up front. It's not as though the filmmakers are pretending they're not tugging at my heartstrings. But, then, the tale never quite takes off. It's a true story, and that's probably a large part of its trouble. The filmmakers needed to be true to the book on which the tale is based and so they felt bad about changing things and (as a consequence) didn't quite hit all the emotional points they might've hit.

There is a long stretch of film where her son's partner won't see her. Why? There could've been some quality emotional payoffs in there that are left untapped. The film avoids other interesting avenues of inquiry, as well: a young woman who doesn't want to know anything about her birth mother, a possible reunion between Philomena and other mothers whose babies were taken from them, the joys of adopted families. The film leaves any big ideas alone, really, and tells, instead, the story of this one character.

And Philomena is a character, make no mistake. She says things like "in England we have Indians instead of Mexicans and everybody loves curry." What? And she reads silly romance novels and relates the stories to her companions as though they're Flaubert. She sees the good in everyone and thinks everyone is out to help everyone else (she apparently did not go through TSA security upon arrival in the United States).

Ms. Dench
(definite Oscar nomination this year)
I had more difficulty with Philomena's moral point of view. The film can't decide whether to forgive people or be angry about what these evil nuns did and continue to do. We have two characters, an angry one and a forgiving one, but which one is right? The film wants it both ways. We should be angry and we should also forgive. But this point of view is not only toothless, it's ethically untenable. Philomena acts as though the point of view of these evil nuns is a relic of the past, as though there is only one frail, lonely person left in all of Christendom who thinks sex is evil, the pain of childbirth is a punishment for sin, or HIV is a punishment for going against the will of the god. But this isn't true at all! This point of view pervades our societies across the globe. So it is all fine and well for Philomena to forgive the evil nuns, but what about the mothers whose children the nuns are still hiding from them? And what about the Catholic church's continued ludicrousness toward female sexuality? And what about trying to fix the evil that they've done? Philomena comes down on the side of the institution here: forgive and forget and try to focus on Jesus. Yeah. No thanks.

Judi Dench is wonderful. As much of a cartoon as this character might have been, Dench plays Philomena straight at every moment, never judging her, never commenting on her. It is a beautiful performance, quiet and sad and very, very lovely. I didn't always like this character, but Dench is stunning.