October 2, 2023

Venice Film Festival Review – Philomena starring Steve Coogan

‘The Sisters of Little Mercy…’

A BBC-backed film is in competition at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Philomena is the tale of an elderly woman’s search for the son that was taken from her by Irish nuns in the 1950s. Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, it is based on the real life experiences of Philomena Lee. Her story was first taken up by the ex-BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith and this film follows his investigations, although by concentrating on Philomena it has a different emphasis to his book.

Finding himself sacked from his political job Sixsmith takes up Philomena’s cause as a means of easing himself back into journalism. Steve Coogan plays the part with an understated diffidence, whilst Judy Dench takes delight in one of the few leading roles for bus pass aged women in the cinema this year.

Years ago Philomena wasn’t married and had a child. She was sent to a nunnery, where she was exploited and her child was taken from her and given up for adoption. Yesterday I complained that another film premiering at Venice – The Police Officer’s Wife – was plotless, unscripted and would have worked better if it had been tightened up. Philomena by contrast goes too far the other way. The plot drives on relentlessly, twists coming like clockwork to send the story in different directions. The story is powerful, showing the betrayals Philomena suffered, with several moments of humour, but there is no time for reflection as it becomes the action movie of character dramas. Eventually the sentimentality becomes too much. The focus on the ‘evil nuns’ – who were undoubtedly involved in extremely unChristian activities – ignores the fact that it was her own father that sent her to the nunnery and told people she had died, when he discovered she was pregnant.

The BBC and its partners do these films very well. It is set in the 21st century, but there are enough flash backs of frosty trees and classic cars arriving at big houses to keep period drama lovers happy. The unusual element is Philomina’s Christian faith, which allows her to forgive, something that Sixsmith finds himself unable to do. The contrast between the bitter journalist and the loving old woman is well drawn. Coogan said that there was a kernel of truth in all the situations shown on screen and – in a phrase that should be more widely used – the filmmakers just ‘turned up the volume of those kernels.’ They have turned sentiment up to 11, but made a difficult subject watchable.

The writers hope that it will help to bring about a new period of openness and honesty in the Catholic church. ‘Show it to the pope’, Frears has repeated several times whilst talking about the film. It is a reminder of grim days that are hopefully in the past.

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