Stephen Frears is in full possession of his filmmaking talent in Philomena, one of his most pulled-together dramas in years. The true story of a poor Irish woman who, fifty years after being forced to give her 3-year-old son up for adoption, searches for him with a worldly British journalist, is touching, witty and always absorbing.
Though well-received by critics in Venice, its chance of winning a major prize could be down-sized by its similarity to PeterMullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, which took home the Golden Lion in 2002.
When she is a young girl, Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark) meets a good-looking boy at a fair. She is completely in the dark about where babies come from, and this innocent seduction results in pregnancy. It also lands her in an institute for “fallen women” run by nuns of the Sacred Heart, where she gives birth under horrible circumstances (“Pain is her penance.”) Forced to spend years working in the sweat-shop laundry to pay off their “debt” to the order, she and the other girls are allowed to see their children one hour a day, until Mother Superior finds a buyer for the tykes. The heart-breaking scene of Philomena helplessly screaming as her little Anthony is taken away by a rich American couple in a big car is filmed like a scene from a Nazi film, which is how the hatchet-faced nuns appear.
Philomena, a devout Catholic, even blunts Martin’s atheistic outrage at the Church and chooses to forgive the inhuman treatment she received, showing how anti-inflammatory the film’s final message is. But even so, it pulls no punches in describing the devastating effects of punishment for sexual pleasure. While old Sister Hildegarde rabidly goes on about punishing “the carnal incontinence of girls,” Frears draws a sobering parallel with the AIDS crisis and the similarly cruel reaction of conservative America. Whose fault is sex? The film asks.