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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: "Philomena" de Stephen Frears. Deux personnages en quête de vérités...

by Dominique Widemann

Stephen Frears’ ‘Philomena’. Two characters searching for truth…

Translated Friday 10 January 2014, by Georgie O’Neil

An old face reflected in the mirror of time, lit up by church candles. The same woman, much younger, having fun with her own reflection, deformed in a fun fair mirror. Philomena (Judi Dench) was born in Ireland. A young Catholic girl, she “strays", finds herself pregnant and, as was customary at the time, is sent to a convent to hide her shame and the fruit of her sin: a little boy, Anthony, whom she can visit for only one hour a day. The remainder of her time is reserved for four years of slavery at the abbey’s service, to earn its mercy. Peter Mullan’s ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ (2002) springs to mind, a film on the same terrible subject. The children were, for the most part, sent away from their mothers and entrusted to rich American families deemed able to provide for them, in return for payment.

Comforting a mother fifty years later

Philomena stayed silent about her ordeal. Fifty years later, upon seeing a small photograph of the young child that she never saw again, she breaks down and admits what happened to her daughter, who wants to help her to at least find out what became of Anthony, to reassure her motherly concern. Elsewhere, if we can separate the two threads, Martin Sixsmith, an ex BBC foreign correspondent and Director of Communications in Tony Blair’s cabinet, has just been fired from Downing Street. Martin is forced to turn to a type of journalism he despises, one concerning individual “human interest”, or, to his mind, moronic stories for moronic readers. The first meeting between the extremely middle-class Martin (Steve Coogan, who also helped to write the screenplay) and Philomena, a retired nurse from who he initially expects only one story viable for use in an article, is a play of light in which the two actors share the screen.

Stephen Frears’ film, which borrows parts of its register from tragic and ironic genres, becomes a theatrical investigation, a road movie, and a metaphysical quest for forgiveness involving unexpected journeys. Based on a factual account, the film makes do with a discreet, even withdrawn, mise en scene, but as a whole it stands up well, which is largely thanks to its two lead actors. Without diminishing her co-star’s talents, Judi Dench demonstrates a reserve that cements the balance between laughter and tears, and increases the film’s impact. The difficult journey the two protagonists embark on takes them first to Ireland, where the nuns have not only burned all records of the shameful births, but are actively maintaining the impossibility of reunion. Their journey together sees them begin a warm relationship in spite of their differences of opinion and personality. Philomena keeps her faith in spite of the Church’s abominations. Martin is a slightly condescending, cynical atheist, and is sickened by the stories.

Renamed Michael, Anthony lives in Washington

They travel to Washington together, where Martin has contacts. This is where Anthony was brought up, renamed Michael by his new family. Plans set in motion by Republicans under Reagan, namely his complete cutting off of AIDS research, and his decrying of the homosexuals held responsible for the epidemic by his administration, as well as several anti-clerical events, are delivered gleefully by Frears, in particular the horror of the flesh expressed by fragile Nun Hildegarde, which transcends the holy Scriptures. All kinds of adventures then take place, the ins and outs of which we won’t reveal. The story comes full-circle, from birth to return.

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