The premise of Philomena may make many people nervous about seeing it. The questions before watching it will be “Will it be too disturbing?” or “Will the Catholic Church get knocked on screen again?” There’s only one way to find out.
The film begins in 1951 with a teenage Philomena Lee. She meets a young boy at a town fair whom she completely falls for that one day. Fast forward to 2004. Martin Sixsmith is an unemployed journalist since the Labour Party, the party he works as a government advisor, is beset by scandal. He goes to a party and meets the daughter of Philomena Lee who encourages him to write a story about her mother who was forced to give up her baby boy Anthony more than 50 years ago. Martin is uninterested in writing a human interest story and is more intent on writing a book on Russian history. However it’s after he meets Philomena and hears her story about how it all happened that he changes his mind and investigates further.
Once she was pregnant, she was sent by her father to Sean Ross Abbey, a mother-and-baby home that young unwed pregnant girls were sent to. It was terrible to live there while under the orders of the strict Sister Hildegarde, especially if she was assigned to do the laundries for four year to cover her stay. Nevertheless she was able to see her baby Anthony whom grew attached to her friend’s girl Mary. Then one day Philomena saw Mary and Anthony adopted out of the house. All Philomena could do was watch in heartbreak 30 feet away as her infant son was taken away.
Philomena had tried for years to find out what happened to her son by visiting the convent to no avail. Martin goes with Philomena to the convent only to hear from the nuns the records were lost in a fire years earlier. It’s over at the pub they hear from locals that the records were purposely destroyed in a fire and the children were sold to rich Americans. It’s after Martin’s searches in Ireland coming to a dead end that he decides on an arduous task. He decides to get the answers by visiting the United States and having Philomena accompany him.
Upon arrival in the United States, he learns through various search sites that Anthony and Mary were adopted by Doc and Marge Hess who renamed him Michael. Michael grew up to be a lawyer and a senior official to the Republic Party during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. He also learns news of heartbreak. Michael died in 1995 at the age of 43. The news naturally breaks Philomena’s heart but soon she wants to meet with people who knew Michael.
She meets one colleague and learns Michael was gay and died of AIDS. She meets up with Mary who grew up with Michael and eventually became a mother. Mary reveals Michael had a boyfriend named Pete Olsson. Pete is unwilling to cooperate despite Martin’s please but it’s not until Philomena pleads face to face with Pete that he complies. The visit with Pete is warm as he tells her of Michael’s childhood and even shows home videos. It’s when Philomena sees a video of Michael at the Sean Ross Abbey that she learns Michael tried looking for her while he was dying. She also learns he was buried over at the Abbey.
It’s then when Martin and Philomena return to the Abbey where it all started. It’s there where Martin can confront Sister Hildegard for being strict on the girls and being deceptive to both Philomena and Michael, whom she told Michael he was abandoned and they lost contact with the mother. Hildegard is unrepentant but surprisingly Philomena approaches her and forgives her. It’s right at Michael’s grave that she can finally meet the son she’s always looked for and finally make peace with her past.
The best quality of the movie is its unpredictability for those who’ve never learned the story. There may be some who have already learned the story of Philomena Lee but most who haven’t. If you don’t, then this movie will surprise you in many areas. It’s not just about Philomena’s search but learning of her son and what happened in the end. The film is full of moments. Moments of happiness, moments of tension, moments of relief, moments of surprise, moments of sadness and moments of humor. The film shows that the trip Philomena went on was not just about leaning about what came of her son but also her own personal journey of healing. A healing that needed to happen and occurred in unexpected ways.
Another great quality is the portrayal of the characters themselves. Philomena comes across as a very likeable and charming woman. Nevertheless one would question how smart she is at times and even question her faith if it’s just routine or even strong. Philomena is seen as simple and sometimes blames herself for a lot of wrongs in her life. However she comes across at the end as a stronger person than one would originally think. The biggest surprise is it would be Martin who most seems to have problems and issues while Philomena, who is the one who actually endured trauma, who still smiles at life in the end despite the harshness she went through.
Martin himself comes across as your typical egotistical journalist who appears to want to destroy the Catholic Church with his pen but somehow has a softening of heart once Philomena comes into his life. He will first make one wonder what his true intentions of helping Philomena learn of her son is: to really help Philomena or to get a great story published. In the end, he comes off as rather likeable for a journalist. Proof that even a journalist can have a heart!
I know there may be some Catholic readers that may be hesitant about seeing this film and the way the Catholic Church is portrayed. Yes, it’s surprising that Catholics would be more concerned about their depiction of the Church in a film that’s not by Martin Scorsese than whether Scorsese’s latest has another slamming of the Catholic Church in his latest. Even I myself was a bit concerned about seeing this as I saw The Magdalene Sisters ten years ago and it really was a nasty depiction of nuns and priests as well as a harsh but true look at the abuse the girls received. Philomena doesn’t show the girls in the laundries suffering abuse. It shows then doing the laundry but it does show the heartbreak of a teenage Philomena as she sees Anthony taken away from a distant window. It also shows Sister Hildegard to be unapologetic for all she’s done, not even for the girls that died during childbirth.
Actually in retrospect, I think it makes the Catholic Church look like the bad guy while the Catholic faith comes across as a positive thing in the end. One will first think of Philomena’s Catholic faith as something too ritualistic or forced upon her and even prone to break at one point but one will see in the end that it’s her faith that helps her through her hard times. In fact Philomena’s response to why she forgives Sister Hildegard in from of Martin will astonish the audience and will surprise many about how forgiveness is actually a form of personal strength. As for The Wolf Of Wall Street, Catholics should relax as the most there is in it is a joke about nuns which is the tamest taunting of the Catholic church I’ve seen is a Scorsese movie in years. I feel Philomena’s story of her search is an uplifting story of hurt and eventual healing.
Without a doubt, the standout of the film is the performance of Judi Dench. Judi is one of those actresses who really knows how to excel with age. I may have seen better acting performances from her but her portrayal of Philomena was excellent in showing the many dimensions of Philomena Lee as well as adding a charm to her. Steve Coogan was also very good in what I feel to be the best acting I’ve seen from him. His role as Martin didn’t have the same dimension as Philomena but it was a very good performance. Coogan also did a very good job of scriptwriting with Jeff Pope. The story keeps one interested especially for those who don’t know the story of Philomena Lee. Stephen Frears may not as done as spectacular job in directing as Judi did in acting and as Jeff and Steve did in writing but it is worthy of respect. It may not be as great as his Oscar-nominated directing in The Queen but it’s still a very good job. Finally, Alexandre Desplat does it again in making the film with his score composition.
Philomena may first appear like a harsh movie about a woman hurt by her past and finally looking for answers. In the end it turns out to be more bittersweet than harsh and will leave one feeling Philomena did win in the end.
“Initially you’re overwhelmed. But gradually you realize it’s like a wave. Resist, and you’ll be knocked over. Dive into it, and you’ll swim out the other side.”
-Evelyn Greenslade from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
In the last two years, it seems like movies are mostly set out for the Echo or Millenial generation but also intended to attract Generation X and today’s children too. It seemed like the Boomer Generation was a movie crowd that had many years and decades in the sun in terms of movies and its now past. But not so fast. They’re still leaving one last impact that been especially present in the last two years. I’ve noticed it in three films from the past while and even a current release. It’s positive there will be more to come but it does face challenges.
It’s hard to exactly pinpoint what birthyears define a generation. There are common assumptions of what years consist of the Baby Boomer generation but I was commonly told it was the generation that began just after World War II had ended. The most common birthyears I have seen associated with the Baby Boomer generation are from 1946 to 1964.
The Baby Boomer generation is a generation that has made an impact in many ways but is especially noticeable on its impact in movies. We first saw it in the 70’s when they went to see thrillers by Spielberg and Lucas and dramas from Scorsese and but also experimental movies like Clockwork Orange and Pulp Fiction. They’ve also made their own sets of stars like Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Bette Midler, Billy Crystal, Tom Hanks, Geena Davis…I could go on. Baby Boomer filmmakers, actors and audiences have contributed to the changes greatly in both Hollywood film and films of other format. Even Baby Boomer women left their mark as many showed they didn’t simply have to be in front of the camera but behind the camera too.
Even as they were getting older as the late-80’s came, they still showed that they were a viable audience market worth major focus and continued to have films and movies with them in mind. They also showed that an actor or actress can get older in age like their 30’s and 40’s and still be a big draw. They also changed family movies in the late 80’s/early 90’s too as the movies directed to their children would also have to include elements in which parents could watch and enjoy too.
Then it appeared at the turn of the millennium, it would be handed to the younger generations like Generation X and especially the Echo/Millennial generation mostly comprised of their children while most boomer actor would be relegated to supporting roles. It was thought that they would now have to make way for them. Even now with the Boomers getting older and many entering into their Golden Years, it appears the core audience for movies is now the Millennial generation mostly composed of their children or children of the generation after them. Even though the Boomer generation no longer has that decades-old grip on movies they used to, they appeared to still have a spark in them that allowed for films to be released with them in mind.
I believe the first trigger was back in 2007 with the hit movie The Bucket List. Directed by Rob Reiner and written by Justin Zackham, this featured Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two men with terminal lung cancer giving themselves goals to achieve before they ‘kick the bucket.’ The movie was a hit achieving $93 million at the US box office and $175 million worldwide. The box office success sent the message that Boomers and the generation before them were still a marketable film crowd and that younger generations can also be entertained by movies featuring older movie stars. Hey, didn’t we like Grumpy Old Men back in the 90’s?
The first movie that caught my attention to this was a British movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The movie was directed by 64 year-old John madden and its ensemble cast consisted mostly of British actors in their 60’s and 70’s like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy. The movie was about older retired people who come to live at what they think will be a nice hotel in India. Instead it turns out to be dingy. Over time they discover more about themselves and many learn that their life doesn’t have to end in their golden ages. They can start a new life. One can free their soul. One can even finally meet Mr. Right. The movie did very well grossing $46 million in North America and $134 million worldwide.
There was a second British movie also based on aging that scored well: Quartet. This was the directorial debut of American Dustin Hoffman. The movie starred Maggie Smith, included Ton Courtenay and Michael Gambon, and is based off of a hit British stage play. The movie is situated in a retirement home for former professional musicians. The home has always had financial issues but has always kept themselves going by teaching to young people and holding an annual gala. The gala has had its issues as many of its top former musicians have died over the years. Their best hope is to have a famous quartet as their main attraction. Their best hopes rest on soprano Jean Horton who actually is an ex-wife of one of the other quartet singers and both failed to heal the bad terms between them. The movie was not just about healing relationships. The movie was also coming to terms with aging and dealing with the changes; especially since the artistic giftedness that once made their greatness withered away with age. The movie scored very well with the critics and made $55 million worldwide at the box office.
You may have noticed that not every star actor in the movie is a Baby Boomer. Not Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Michael Gambon. Nevertheless the theme of aging is a common theme Baby Boomers can relate to especially since the first wave of Baby Boomers–born in the first few years following World War II– have now entered into their 60’s and are dealing with the issues with aging and also attempting to overcome the obstacles associated with it.
Hollywood has noticed that too and they even sent out a more commercial movie about getting older called Parental Guidance. Since it stars Bette Midler and Billy Crystal, you know it would be a comedy. It’s not necessarily about aging but about the role of grandparents who come into the lives of their daughter, her husband and grandchildren. The movie is about grandparents trying to raise the grandchildren while the parents are away. They have a wide array of obstacles to deal with like new technology, children’s behavior, modern methods of parenting and psychology, a musically gifted granddaughter making social sacrifices, a new job pursuit and above all the role as grandparents. This was a unique movie upon release as it appeared marketed to Baby Boomer grandparents, Generation X or Echo parents and the current generation of children. The critical consensus was not too pleased with parental Guidance but it made 4477 million at the US box office and almost $120 million worldwide.
Parental Guidance may have been a hit but it’s not to say that aging Boomer stars still face challenges in Hollywood movies. Recently there was the movie The Big Wedding which featured an ensemble cast starring older stars like Robert de Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon and Robin Williams along with younger stars Ben Barnes, Katharine Heigl and Amanda Seyfried. The movie was written and directed by The Bucket List scriptwriter Justin Zackham. The movie was seen by the consensus of critics as unfunny and predictable. The box office didn’t fare well either grossing a total of $21 million so far.
Even the artistic film industry faces challenges as well. There was the French Language film Amour about an aging couple dealing with their love for each other as the wife suffers a stroke and is left terminally impaired. The film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture and won Best Foreign Language Film but achieved less than $7 million at the US box office and $20 million worldwide.
The past twelve months have showed that the aging populations, especially the aging Baby Boomers, are still a marketable and profitable movie crowd despite the majority of movies focused on the under-30’s. It’s fair to say that the film industry has done a good job in turning out movies with them in mind but it still faces a lot of challenges in the present and in the future. It’s not just the aging crowds that want to see movies but the aging actors that still want to act and aging stars that want to prove they still have it. Only time will define what works with them and what will continue to draw them to the cinemas.