By Nicole Beth Wallenbrock
If you have read any plot summary of “Philomena,” you know the most interesting part—a young Irish woman with no sexual education becomes pregnant and is shunned by her family. The church while brainwashing her to believe she is a sinner, house her in exchange for hard labor before confiscating her son and selling him for adoption behind her back. The mother is none other than Philomena played by Dame Judy Dench, who has been haunted by the flashbacks of her baby for fifty years. Now in her 70s she begins a thorough search for her lost son with the help of a BBC journalist, Ron Sexsmith (Steve Coogan). Yet despite the complex nature of the storyline, the production overwhelms the plot with melodrama and simplicity. “Philomena”’s marketability is finessed with sweeping strings, manicured camera work that feels even dull for television, and a dialogue that adds to the film’s predictability. If Steve Coogan is an initial draw, beware his genius does not radiate here. Instead he states his part plainly, with sarcasm, but without interest. Nevertheless the cruelty of the church here is a point of fascination. This true story of the Irish Catholic Church shaming many young mothers in the 1950s and then profiting from the sale of their children to Americans is dumbfounding.
Dame Judy Dench, a masterfully adds some believability to the production’s more loutish “this is what you should be thinking” moments. There are hints at profundity; layers alluded to that the film never reaches. In fact when Ron insults the concept of public interest journalism and then agrees to do precisely that, you wonder if Stephen Frears is also criticizing the film’s sappy, popular, style. A debate between Philomena and Ron concerning God meant for humor should but doesn’t connect to the larger question that Philomena as a character poses-Why do people remain catholic when these crimes are committed against them?
When Ron finally locates Philomena’s son, it becomes clear that he has recently died from AIDS- the secret that Philomena maintained for fifty years is not unlike her son’s closeted homosexuality (he worked for the Republican Party under Reagan). While this analogy is practically stated in dialogue, a further comparison of the injustices of the Catholic Church and the Reagan administration (that first ignored AIDS and then denied AIDS researchers funding) is too radical and perhaps too broad for Frears’ film to voice (I for one would love that film!). Perhaps this though is where “Philomena” succeeds and is more subtle than its style would suggest, painting the world in obvious tones the spectator pauses ever so briefly when a blank is left open. If spectators after viewing “Philomena” are now aware of the criminal nature of the Catholic Church’s response to teen pregnancy in Ireland, it has taught the public, but if the public then chooses to look up the film’s footnote concerning Reagan and AIDS, it is at least doubly useful.
It is more than interesting to see in 2014 two films that address the 80s AIDS epidemic nominated for Academy Awards.