Movie review: Philomena

It may be mere coincidence, of course, but the Catholic faith seems to be fertile ground to some people for human-interest stories that have little to do with religion and everything to do with retribution in the form of mental cruelty and physical abuse.

Philomena, a touching, tragic and troubling tale of a woman's quest to find her son 50 years after she was forced to give him away leaves no doubt as to who the villains are - showing, in more ways than one, that old habits die hard.

A group of heartless nuns in a remote Irish convent holds the key to a mystery wrapped in grim circumstance but the film, directed by Stephen Frears and based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, also has a lightness of touch that can be attributed to Frears's dexterity in dealing with a controversial topic.

The screenplay, adapted by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, treads the fine line between true mystery, dark drama and light comedy, and the result is a film that entertains while keeping the audience fully engaged.

Philomena, a rosy-cheeked teenager (Sophie Kennedy Clark), succumbs to a young man's advances at a fun fair and after scandalising her family with the resulting pregnancy, is sent away to a convent where the conditions are harsh and the nuns even harsher. In return for looking after unwed mothers (sinners of the worst order, as the film portrays them), the young women are made to work for years in a laundry and allotted only an hour a day to be with their babies.

Philomena's world is shattered when her three-year-old son is given away (for a fee) to adoptive parents from the United States. She has to relinquish all claims to the child but eventually marries and has a family of her own, burying her past for 50 years while wondering what happened to him and periodically trying to make contact. However, the nuns at the convent are unresponsive and deny any knowledge of her son's whereabouts.

That's when Sixsmith (played with admirable restraint by Coogan), a down-on-his-luck English journalist, hears of the story and reluctantly takes on an assignment to write a magazine article. Together with Philomena (Judi Dench), he embarks on a journey of discovery that takes them back to the convent, following a trail that leads across the Atlantic.

The wall of silence they encounter at the convent is frustrating but aided by the moral superiority of innocents in search of the truth - not to mention old home movies of a tousled-haired little boy happily at play - they eventually unearth a story of uncommon warmth. When it comes, the reveal of a life lost is both startling and beyond sad.

Philomena and Martin make for an odd couple and an unlikely pair of sleuths but one couldn't do without the other. For a story that has all the elements of tragedy, Philomena is ultimately about a triumph for a woman of courage.

"Have faith my dear, God will forgive you," says a priest to Philomena when she suffers a moment of doubt and weakness. The real question of course, is how she manages to forgive those who treated her so inhumanely.

Rating: B

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