Beliefs, self-discovery take center stage in ‘Philomena’

“Philomena” (2013). Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley, Charlie Murphy, Cathy Belton, Wunmi Mosaku, Kate Fleetwood, Tadhg Bowen, Saoirse Bowen. Director: Stephen Frears. Screenplay: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Book: Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Web site. Trailer.

When we go looking for something, sometimes we find more than we anticipated. Searches driven by heartfelt, introspective concerns in particular often lead us to unexpected revelations and discoveries. Such is the case for an unlikely duo in the touching, fact-based comedy-drama, “Philomena.”

Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a retired nurse living in London, harbors a painful secret, and she desperately desires to unburden herself. That opportunity finally comes on what would have been the 50th anniversary of a significant, though closely guarded event in her life – the birth of her son out of wedlock in the seclusion of an Irish convent. It was an incident that, at the time, was looked upon as nothing short of an eternal damnation sentence, at least in the eyes of the Church and its sanctimonious minions, most notably Mother Barbara (Ruth McCabe) and her relentless attack dog, Sister Hildegarde (Kate Fleetwood).

As penance for her “sin” (and in reparation for the discreet care she received from the Sisters), the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) was required to spend four years working at the convent, performing chores for no money under the ever-watchful eye of the nuns. She had few pleasures in her life and even fewer allies, though she could always count on the support of her best friend, Kathleen (Charlie Murphy). She also took great pleasure in being able to spend a little time each day with her son, Anthony (Tadhg Bowen), a happy little lad who was highly protective of, and virtually inseparable from, Kathleen’s young daughter, Mary (Saoirse Bowen).

But, despite these small joys, Philomena, Kathleen and the other unwed mothers all had a perpetual threat hanging over them – the prospect that their children could be taken away at any time by would-be adoptive parents with deep pockets. When that fate unexpectedly befell Philomena, she was devastated. Her only remembrance of Anthony was a single photograph that had been clandestinely slipped to her by one of the more compassionate Sisters. And it was all she would ever have, even 50 years later.

Philomena long wondered what happened to her little boy. When she finally works up the nerve to reveal her secret to her adult daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), she explains how desperate she is to know that Anthony grew up safe and sound. She even expresses hope that she might meet him somehow, despite the odds against that. As a concerned daughter, Jane wants to help her mother in any way that she can, and, fortunately, a highly fortuitous synchronicity presents itself shortly thereafter.

While attending a cocktail party, Jane meets Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a one-time BBC reporter and former government communications director who left office after becoming embroiled in a scandal involving a very public (and very embarrassing) news leak. With no job and no clear career path, Martin has been floundering about, futilely searching for his next journalism gig. That soon changes, however, when Jane and Martin cross paths. She pitches him on the idea of writing a story about her mother’s plight. As a former foreign affairs correspondent, he’s initially reluctant, claiming he doesn’t write human interest stories. But, once he’s introduced to another party guest, Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley), an editor always on the lookout for noteworthy stories to publish (especially from writers with high-profile pedigrees), Jane’s proposal suddenly doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.

Before long, Jane arranges a meeting between Philomena and Martin. The unlikely duo seems a decidedly mismatched pair to embark on such an ambitious undertaking, especially since Philomena has precious little to offer Martin in helping him find her son. But, given that he’s in need of a job and having been effectively swayed by his subject’s touching story, Martin decides to forge ahead with the assignment. Thus begins the saga of an intrepid reporter and a heartbroken mother to locate her long-lost son, an odyssey that ends up spanning two continents and taking the determined investigators on a journey filled with numerous twists and turns.

Thematically speaking, the film’s greatest strength rests with its exploration of our ability to control our beliefs – or to let them control us. Whichever of these choices we make subsequently affects the nature of the reality we experience as conscious creators. This is particularly true with religious-based beliefs and how we allow them (or don’t allow them) to help shape the manifestations that comprise our everyday lives.

It’s especially interesting to see how this plays out with the two protagonists, both of whom were raised Roman Catholic. For Martin, a recovering practitioner, he’ll have no part of the Church’s seemingly arbitrary and capricious dictates about how we must live our daily lives. He wants nothing to do with the subjective commandments that it routinely and dogmatically passes off as unquestionable, absolute truths. Consequently, he frames his thoughts and creates a reality based on beliefs driven by rational, logical notions, those that can be “proven” only with substantive, evidentiary facts. In doing this, however, he also tends to throw out the baby with the bath water, giving short shrift to whatever beneficial teachings the Church might have to offer, something about which he periodically needs to be reminded.

Philomena, by contrast, was raised a good Catholic girl, one who dutifully abided by its decrees, even if they caused her personal anguish, pain and suffering. However, she also couldn’t help but quietly question much of what she was taught to believe. For instance, the Church made it abundantly clear that sex was something dirty and sinful, yet Philomena pondered why God would give us something so eminently pleasurable if it was meant to be viewed in such a wholly negative light. And, if the Church could get something like that wrong, she wondered, what else might it have erred about? For example, was it really necessary for Anthony’s disposition to be handled as it was? Or were other, equally viable options available that weren’t offered to her? But, whenever such radical thoughts would arise, the beliefs premised on all those threatening old lessons would come racing back to her, quickly quelling such upstart, “unacceptable” notions.

The net effect of all this was to leave Philomena perpetually conflicted. Did she do the right thing by letting the Sisters handle Anthony’s circumstances as they did? Or should she have cast aside those beliefs and taken a more proactive approach to things? The doubt that lingered for half a century tortured her terribly, which is why she eventually had to find out what happened to her son if she were ever to have any peace of mind – not only with regard to how she handled herself, but also with respect to her feelings about those who handled matters for her.

Of course, Philomena’s story also shines a light on the intents behind the beliefs being put forth by the Church, both as teachings to its followers and as the means of creating the institution’s reality. One can’t help but ask why did the Sisters do what they did? Were their beliefs driven by compassion and the well-being of those they cared for, or was there something more self-serving involved? That’s something Martin and Philomena must wrestle with as their investigation unfolds, both in terms of what actually happened and how those events are to be reconciled with their personal beliefs.

In reaching the answers they seek, Philomena and Martin frequently find themselves following hunches, those intuitive flashes that sometimes seem illogical but that often lead to remarkable revelations and starling synchronicities. For Philomena, a woman of faith, this isn’t as much of a stretch as it is for Martin, a man of reason, who is nearly always astounded whenever such discoveries make themselves apparent. By readily drawing upon this faculty, both protagonists are able to sharpen the clarity of their beliefs and the effectiveness of their conscious creation skills to reach the objectives they seek to fulfill. It’s an example we’d be wise to follow, too, especially for those of us seeking to improve our manifestation proficiency.

Through their amazing odyssey together, Philomena and Martin eventually reach their goal, but what they find may not be what they (or audiences) had envisioned at the outset of their journey. In arriving at what they’re looking for, they discover much more than the specific answers they initially sought; they also discover parts of themselves they never knew existed. In that sense, the journey to find Anthony is just as much a journey for them to find Philomena and Martin as well. It’s quite astounding how the quest for fulfilling a particular objective ends up revealing others that we never knew we were meant to go looking for. But a process such as this often brings us face to face with the beliefs that not only created the circumstances in question but that also helped to shape our overall existence and being – including those parts of ourselves that we never knew existed but were ultimately meant to find.

On its surface, “Philomena” might seem like a formula feel-good movie, but it’s much more than that. In many ways it’s a mystery, a road trip story and an unconventional buddy flick, one that’s delightfully warm and touching but filled with a delicious sense of unpredictability. Credit director Stephen Frears for a deft touch in his handling of the material and the superb writing of screenwriters Coogan and Jeff Pope for delivering an affecting, humorous, heartfelt script. But, most of all, give major kudos to the superb performances of Dench and Coogan, who are terrific individually and together. Dench’s portrayal is already chalking up considerable awards season buzz, and she’s deserving of every bit of attention she receives, including her recent nominations as best lead actress in the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award competitions. The film has also received Golden Globe nominations for best dramatic picture and best screenplay.

It’s been said that, in finding others, we find ourselves. Given their journey together, Philomena and Martin can certainly attest to the truth of that, and the film that tells their story brings it to life for all to see. May we all one day be so fortunate to have such an enlightening experience.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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