Stephen Frears’ extraordinarily moving story of Philomena had the audiences crying and laughing last evening at the ongoing Venice Film Festival.
About an Irish girl, barely 14, in the early 1950s who is abandoned in a nunnery by her family after she gets pregnant, Philomena plots the suffering she had to endure. Forced to do the dirtiest of jobs there, she is separated from her baby son, allowed to see him only once a week. Finally, he, Anthony, is given away in adoption to a rich American family. For the next 50 years, the disgraced girl, Philomena, lives with the beautiful memory of her son, till one day, a chance encounter with a former BBC journalist helps her realise that she must try and find her son.
In what seems like a winning role – and of course a winning movie, perhaps Frears’ career best – Judi Dench after ridding herself of the James Bond series in Skyfall (where she dies) gives a clincher in and as Philomena, bonded to silence for half a century before Steve Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith agrees to accompany her to Washington to try and look for Anthony.
Sixsmith’s book on Philomena’s travails, published in 2009, worked not only as a catalyst for thousands of such “shamed” Irish mothers who also lost their children in a similar manner, but also as the basis for Frears’ beautiful film. The best part of it was that the pairing between Dench and Coogan leads to comedic relief.
Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay along with Jeff Pope, said the movie needed this wit and humour. "Otherwise it would be just a tragic, depressing story. The humour was important to lighten the mood, and sugar the pill. It was also important we didn't overdo it. I said, 'If I mug too much, or if my face becomes too animated, tell me to turn it down,' “Coogan told a Press conference here yesterday.
And at the same meet, Frears quipped that he would want Pope Francis to see Philomena, and the director said this three times during the 30-minute conference. "I am very, very keen that the Pope should see it, if you have any influence in those quarters," Frears told reporters. "He seems like a rather good bloke, the Pope."
Agreeing with Frears’, Dench, who came into the limelight with her roles in Shakespearean plays in the 1960s, described the movie as "a shockingly terrible story, and it rightly should be told." The actress met the real Philomena several times before filming, and admired her enduring faith and ability to forgive, which "is what makes her extreme, and makes the story worth telling," Dench averred.
And not just that, Philomena is also a bold attempt to bring out into the open what is nothing short of a scandal. Venice seemed bolder by far to screen it and in the Festival’s top competition slot. In an essentially Catholic country such as Italy, the most thunderous clap of cheers came half way through the movie screening when Sixsmith looks at Philomena and mutters, “F—ing Catholics.”
As one reporter wrote: “Italy is both a Catholic country and a robustly anticlerical one, but the whoops from the audience weren’t a reflex action to an ecclesiastical obscenity. They expressed a passionate connection to the film’s story, inspired by true events, of a woman looking for the son that the Church stole from her a half-century before”.
The “thieves” were Northern Irish nuns who ran some sort of a slave-labour home for unwed mothers that was akin to the institutions for “fallen girls” documented in The Magdalene Sisters, which won the Golden Lion here in 2002.
In Philomena, the home is called Roscrea, where wealth couples could buy a child for $ 1000 and take them away without even the mothers being allowed to say a final goodbye. Conveniently, the documents on adoption are destroyed leaving little chance for the miserable mothers to even hope for locating their children.
Frears and the rest of his team, including Coogan and Dench, do a marvellous job of presenting a film that is brilliantly performed and helmed with amazing restraint. Philomena, which gently got the viewers swinging between tears and laughter, has excellent chances not only at Venice, but also at the Oscars. Dench may well get the Golden Lion for acting here, and who knows, the Oscar next February.
Maybe, it was not after all a bad thing that the Bond guys decided to bump her off. It appears that their loss is Frears’ gain. To begin with, that is.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Venice Film Festival for Hindustan Times.)