Pat introduced Philomena to a packed RBC Film Theatre, and was honest enough to admit afterwards that like most of us she did not find it an easy task to carry out. However she prepared us well for the film, and the following are extracts from her notes along with some of my own thoughts, as Brian had the night off to help recover from a nasty accident at home. Normal reviews should resume next week as he is determined not to miss any more films.
Philomena is based on a true story from the book called 'The Lost Child of Philomena Lee' by Martin Sixsmith, and is about Philomena's efforts to find her son who was given away for adoption to the United States. Sixsmith worked for the BBC as a foreign correspondent in the 80's and early 90's, and reported from Moscow during the end of the Cold War, Poland during the Solidarity uprising, and was the BBC's Washington correspondent during the election and first presidency of Bill Clinton. He then went on to work in a civil service post for the newly elected government of Tony Blair. In 2001 he became embroiled in the second act of the scandal over Jo Moore. Moore was a special adviser to the Transport Secretary Stephen Byres, and had been the subject of much public condemnation for suggesting that a controversial announcement should be 'buried' during the media coverage of the September 11th 2001 attacks.
Sixsmith incurred the displeasure of Downing Street when his e-mail advising Byers and Moore not to bury any more bad news was leaked to the press. Number Ten attempted to 'resign him', but had later to issue an apology and pay him compensation. Sixsmith was widely expected to write a memoir or autobiography in the wake of his Civil Service departure, but was gagged by the government. Instead, he produced a novel about near-future politics called 'Spin'.
Philomena is directed by Stephen Frears, known for directing 'Dangerous Liaisons', 'High Fidelity', and 'The Queen'. One of Britain's most respected and popular actresses, Judy Dench', plays Philomena. (I suspect she is one of the reasons that the film is attracting such large audiences at the RBC.) Steve Cougan who is well known for comedy writing and acting, particularly the character Alan Partridge, plays Sixsmith. In 2009 Coogan had read a Guardian article by Sixsmith which related to the book. He found the twists and turns of the story compelling, tragic and painful, yet accompanying the article was a photo of Sixsmith and Philomena sat on a bench together and laughing. Coogan felt it seemed at odds with the tragic story, and tempered the sadness. Two years later he was writing the screenplay with Jeff Pope. They decided to make Sixsmith a central character alongside Philomena, making him more spiky and cynical than he is in reality, and a foil to Philomema's character.
Some commentators have criticised the film as an attack on the Catholic Church and American Republicans, however Philomena Lee herself has said that these people have missed the point entirely, which is that despite her experience she is a proud catholic, and the story is a testament to good things.
It was Peter Mullan who first drew my attention to the horrors of the Magdaline Institutions in his film 'The Magdaline Sisters'. Philomena Lee spent four years in one working seven days a week, because she happened to have casual sex and become pregnant. The child which she loved dearly was sold for adoption against her will, and it was only in her fifties that she felt she could talk about it, and eventually agree to find out what happened to the boy. What kind of people is it that gravitate to the positions of responsibility that the senior nuns and clergy held? These girls were slaves, and the hypocrisy is that the men who had the sex with the girls never seem to suffer much. Forgive me father for I have sinned ... indeed! Where was all the money going that the girls were generating? This is a harrowing story, but unlike 'The Magdaline Sisters' was frequently lightened up by humerous lines from both Judy Dench and Steve Cougan.
I am not particularly a fan of Cougan's work, and did not have high expectations of the film, but the acting by the principle characters and supporting cast was convincingly good. Part of the fun of the film was following a most unlikely couple on a strange road trip. Sixsmith is shown as a real snob with high ideals, and Philomena is such a down-to-earth character. In one scene they are jetting to America, and are offered drinks which Philomena refuses. Sixsmith informs her that the drinks are free, so she calls for a buck's fizz. 'You have to pay for everything on Ryan Air.' I really enjoyed the film and it would pass that ultimate RBC test of getting the DVD to check it out again.
It is also a film with a strong message. Philomena was a compassionate person, and had been a nurse for most of her life. When one of the nuns who was responsible for a lot of the grief was eventually tracked down, Philomena said to her,' I forgive you because I don't want to remain angry'. Interestingly Sixsmith preferred to remain angry, but I suppose as a journalist that is an important trait.