VENICE – The unhappy case of Philomena Lee, we are told throughout Stephen Frears” outwardly stoic but not-so-secretly mallow-centered “Philomena,” is far more than a ‘human interest” story. That phrase, frequently used here as a catch-all for manipulative, exploitative ‘soft” journalism short on both sincere humanity and interest, is first contemptuously uttered by disgraced political journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) when Lee”s daughter approaches him about looking into her mother”s agonized search for a long-lost son. “It”s a human interest story,” he brusquely informs her, helpfully adding that such stories are written both for and about the “weak-minded, vulnerable and ignorant.”
Well. It takes neither a student of psychology nor one of narrative structure to tell that the hardened Oxbridge man will undergo a change of heart in due course. And true enough, the elderly Irishwoman”s tale of woe – recounted six years after their initial meeting in Sixsmith”s 2009 book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” – certainly is more penetrating, not to mention more surprising, than the formulaic if true accounts of loss and redemption that fill the tabloids Philomena herself likes to read. Conflicted sexual identities, enduring institutional corruption and raw, never-to-be-resolved grief are all teased out of this one mild-mannered woman”s sentimental journey – with a hearty side order of Catholic guilt, of course.
That doesn”t stop Sixsmith from pitching it to a practically salivating magazine editor as human interest material of the glibbest variety, as he emphasises its salacious extremes – “Evil is good, story-wise,” he yammers, as Philomena shoots him a baffled look – and projects a cathartic happy ending for the then-unsolved case. Coogan”s screenplay, co-written with Jeff Pope, repeatedly chastises Sixsmith and his kind for packaging human tragedy in this fashion, but the irony is that Frears” entertaining but thoroughly unchallenging film isn”t doing anything remotely different.
Timing its unexpected reveals with Swiss-watch precision for maximum pathos, and patronizing its salt-of-the-earth title character by playing her cultural and intellectual limitations for sympathetic laughs, “Philomena” is human interest filmmaking of a classy and highly effective order, but its repeated sneers at the adjusted-reality fixation of modern middlebrow culture are more than a little disingenuous.
The Catholic Church has been much in the news for the abuse it has enacted on the bodies and minds of young men; but its equally unconscionable maltreatment of the fairer sex remains a less explored scandal. Peter Mullan”s searing 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters” was a breakthrough in that regard, documenting life in the workhouses (or ‘Asylums”) managed by the Church for “fallen” women. It”s a world that “Philomena” revisits in less gritty flashback scenes that nonetheless, thanks to the saturated, soft-toned wizardry of genius cinematographer Robbie Ryan (surely the best man ever to shoot for Frears), carry real atmospheric weight.
Knocked up after a first, ecstatic sexual encounter at a fairground in rural West Ireland in the early 1950s, the teenaged Philomena (played with spare, trembling power by Sophie Kennedy Clark) is bundled into an Asylum, and made to sign over her imminent child to the Church”s care. After a difficult birth – “The pain is her penance,” hisses hatchet-faced nun and chief villain Sister Hildegard (Barbara Jefford) – Philomena is permitted daily visitation rights to her son Anthony. Three years later, the Church sells him, together with another inmate”s daughter, to a wealthy childless couple from the States.
This is the last Philomena knows, her subsequent enquiries over the decades having been rebuffed by the Asylum staff – who trust that the naive, God-fearing woman will take accept the Church”s profession of ignorance. Faced with the enquiries of even a slumming Sixsmith, however, the case is blown open far more efficiently, and it”s not long before the journalist and his sweet-natured new meal ticket are on Anthony”s trail in Washington D.C.
It”d teeter on spoiler territory to offer further details of their investigation – though it”s with each subsequent revelation that Philomena reveals herself to be rather a more complex, socially advanced being than the Harlequin-reading rube the rest of the film makes her out to be. Her attitude toward sex, having been punished so severely for it herself, is particularly intriguing, even if the script can resist making several limp old-woman-talking-dirty jokes at her expense.
Indeed, the whole film seems rather too amused by Philomena, repeatedly ribbing her as a kind of holy innocent, whose sense of perma-wonder extends even to the complimentary mint on her hotel room pillow. Neither is it a character approach that sits particularly well with Dench”s touching, finely etched performance: not an actress naturally given to playing dumb, her more intelligent read on Philomena is of a woman at once aware of her limitations, and not entirely aware of where others presume her limitations to be. Scenes that require Philomena to be dimly garrulous or blowsy therefore don”t quite ring true – she certainly can”t utter the Irishism “feckin” eejit” with much conviction. It”s the ones where her reactions don”t meet with narrative expectation – as in a particularly moving, underplayed faceoff with the withered Sister Hildegard – that give the film its grace notes (and Dench, I expect, her seventh Oscar nomination).
There certainly aren”t any being provided by Alexandre Desplat”s dismayingly terrible score, which underwrites the film”s every more subtly expressed emotion with twee, tinkly Oirishisms and sickly arpeggios that might best be described as aural human interest. That Frears could pair Ryan”s lovely imagery – more subdued in the film”s latter-day stretches, but still lit with delicate acuity – with a score of such pile-driving lilt suggests he, too, wasn”t quite sure how to play the script”s searching personal narrative with its blandly reductive comic relief. It”s a story rich enough to win the battle, as proved by the thundering applause that greeted its first press screening at Venice this morning, but not without the shaping it professes to find so undignified.