Among the many good films of 2013, this one has to be on my top 5 list. Directed with passion by Stephen Frears, Philomena is a film that questions your beliefs regardless of which religious sect you belong to. As a little exposition, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), way back 1952, was impregnated out of wedlock and was therefore sent forcibly to a convent where she gave birth to a son she named Anthony. She and other young women of similar situation were only allowed to see their children once a week. This and other practices including oppression and prejudice among the nuns are presented well in the film in a way that could condemn the Catholic Church. These are presented in a tone that is sarcastic and ironic, with a mood that is mild and forgiving. Visually, the setting and production design will bring you back to 1950s Ireland, which is highly distinct with the present time. The cinematography is nothing too special; it was shot in polished angles, and with dim lighting to establish the gloomy environment the film is trying to convey. In my opinion, this is the style used to make it closer to reality so it will capture the emotions of people. As the plot develops to the rising action, you start rethinking about “morality” drawn by the strict administration of the nuns. The irony will later be exemplified when you see babies sold to Americans without the consent of the mothers; one of these babies was Anthony. And while he is being sent away, Philomena was watching from afar, not knowing that it is the last time she is going to see her child. The cinematography at this point was brilliant where the angle is trying to show the innocence of Anthony, and the agony of Philomena through an over-the-shoulder shot. Fifty years later, with the help of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the search for the missing son will begin. Martin, who was rebuilding his career in writing, initially declined the idea of writing about Philomena’s lost son. However, as he hears more about the case and discovered that Philomena was only one of the many oppressed women, he decided to do it. Together, they travelled to the United States to find Anthony. Their journey together shows their stark differences. In most of their dialogues, it is very noticeable how different their perspective in life is. This is perfectly presented through the powerful performances by both actors, and subtle representations of their faith. Philomena believes in God, Martin doesn’t. And while we see how unfortunate Philomena’s life can be, her faith is still strong. Martin, like probably many of the viewers, does not understand this irony.
When they finally discovered who Anthony became, they found out that he died eight years ago from AIDS. Still, they traced back his identity just to know how he lived his life. Philomena wanted to know if Anthony ever thought of his hometown, or if she was ever thought of. As the plot boils down to resolution, they will discover that Anthony went back to Ireland and that his body was actually buried in that same convent because he knew his mother would find him. At this point, the film is scored with instrumentals that could bring hostility and liberation. Martin despised the senior nun who kept this a secret as part of her moral standards. She did not allow Philomena to see her son even once before he passed away—a suffering considered as “atonement for sin”. The tone at this point is aggressive while Martin demanded the nun to apologize. The nun did not ask for forgiveness, but Philomena forgave her anyway. This, I consider, is the best part of the film. It was too hard for her to forgive, but she did so. Why Philomena still has faith so strong despite all that has happened to her answers why we believe. At the end of it, they will find his grave and they will continue their lives. Martin will publish Philomena’s story not to upset the convent, but because it deserves to be heard by many. Like Philomena, we have beliefs; and even though these were taught to us by people who may hurt us or fail us, our faith clings to something unfailing. We believe because even if circumstances are not in our hands, we have the option to embrace them. And like Martin, although we do not understand other people’s beliefs, we respect them and we accept people for who they are. This is clearly presented when he gave a small sculpture of Jesus to Philomena.
The film is not chronologically narrated, with an editing technique using flashbacks and home videos to illustrate what has happened in the past. It was well color-corrected to demonstrate tension and emotions through less-saturation. I find this very effective since the film does not hard-sell drama, yet can still give a highly emotional ride. The dialogue is nothing so melodramatic and was instead written very lightly. This represents the character of Philomena as someone who is very graceful and humane.
As for the performances, both Dench and Coogan did a brilliant job in portraying their roles. Frears was able to direct them so distinguished to the characters. This is probably one of the many strengths of this film. The acting was so balanced with the overall mise-en-scene that it easily captures the attention and the emotion of the audience. With a story so beautifully debauched, Philomena was told with heart and passion that even if it presents horrific things, it ended with a very positive attitude that is hauntingly terrific.