Audrey Kupferberg: Philomena

Jan 17, 2014

One film that is drawing attention at award nomination ceremonies is PHILOMENA, the story of a real-life Irish-Catholic woman named Philomena Lee.  The film relates the story a teenager in the 1950s, who met a young man one evening at a fair and wound up having a one-night sexual encounter with him—her first time having sex.  She never saw him again.

She became pregnant and was shipped off to a convent in shame.  It is a convent from hell, and its sadistic sisters treat Philomena and other girls like her as though they were penitent slaves.  As the unknowing, unwed teen-aged mothers work hard in the convent laundry, the top nuns make contact with wealthy people who will pay high sums of money to buy the children, who are spirited away without even an opportunity for mothers to say good-bye.

This anguished melodrama of evil nuns who victimize those who break the rules of the Church has been told in another movie, THE MAGDALENE SISTERS, a 2002 feature about young girls who are imprisoned in an Irish Magdalene Asylum in the mid-1960s.

In THE MAGDALENE SISTERS, the focus is on the horrors to which these spirited young women are subjected by the cruel nuns who run the asylum.  I cannot recommend this film to a wide audience as mainstream entertainment because watching it is a comparable experience to seeing 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  Both films are educational, intelligent, and both have good production values, but they are very difficult to sit through.  After all, how many people want to see a film that consists of two hours of almost unrelenting sadism and torture, and features likable characters who suffer through deep frustration and victimization?

Here is where PHILOMENA has a leg-up on so many other stories of tribulation.  Instead of a straight-forward account of Philomena Lee’s woes, the film plants that plot within an entertaining, based-on-fact story of a journalist who teams up with Philomena fifty years later in order to locate the son who was sold by the nuns without her knowledge.  As such, PHILOMENA is injected with mystery, dimensions, and complexities.  It becomes a film about a woman’s unending love for her birth child and her quest to learn about his life.  The film also looks into the formation of a bond between the urbane intellectual male writer and a warm, if less educated and far less analytical, older woman.

What further adds substance to PHILOMENA is the script’s emphasis on the power of faith and the capability of a person of faith to overcome anger in order to forgive.

Steve Coogan produced, co-wrote, and co-stars in this film, which was directed by Stephen Frears.  Judi Dench plays Philomena.  By the way, if you do not know Steve Coogan’s work, you might begin by viewing his quirky comedy performances in THE TRIP and HAMLET 2.

Fascinating to me is seeing the real Philomena Lee at various premieres and awards shows.  From listening to her being interviewed, one can tell that she truly is a strong and appealing woman, as one might expect from learning about her past life.   As a story of a teen in trouble, PHILOMENA speaks more to older viewers, since our culture has a different attitude towards unwed mothers than we had in the 1950s.  But PHILOMENA’s screenplay goes beyond a single thread of plot and so it should be of wide interest to adult audiences. 

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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