This account of an old woman’s search for her long lost son follows fairly obvious cues as it presents the shame of the Magdalene laundries. Crucifixes are dominantly displayed in flashbacks as the young Philomena, effectively enslaved in the institution (read: “let’s have prison bar motifs”), is separated from the child. The present-day Philomena, played by Dench, is something of a cliché as well – refusing to blame the Church, and alternating between naivety and awareness for humorous effect.
Films like Philomena come about quite often, a profitable rally against a clearly damaging ideology (here, moral conservatism) constructed to the level of institution so that the audience feels compelled to fight against it, which feeds back into giving oneself to the film “underdog” – something of an oxymoron when the medium allows such tight control. Who is it, after all, that makes the bad guys quite so bad? Empire’s Damon Wise completely fell for it, writing in his histrionic 5-star review that Philomena is “perhaps the most subversive British blend of social comment and comedy since the heyday of Ealing Studios”. Subversive? Against such an easy target?
That’s not to say that there’s no value behind the manipulation. Yes, Catholicism is terrible. No, imposing one’s own view of right and wrong on others is never harmless. What’s interesting is the way in which Philomena begins to work against its own processes of narrativisation. Steve Coogan, taking on a rare straight man role, is for me the film’s auteur. He plays Martin Sixsmith, at the particular moment where the ostracised government adviser returns to journalism. For those that don’t know, Coogan took a prominent role in fighting back against the phone hacking affair, and co-writing Philomena‘s screenplay affords him the opportunity to examine some key concerns about the ethical practices of the fourth estate. It’s a delicate, beautifully charged setup where the actor can play his own enemy.
Self-loathing seeps through Coogan’s performance. Sixsmith, fully aware of journalism’s murky shadows, takes on Philomena’s case despite his distaste in human interest pieces – “stories about weak-minded, ignorant people, written for weak-minded, ignorant people”. He is not inspired by the old woman’s quest. He just knows it can sell. In a subtle display of narrative self-consciousness, Sixsmith pitches the story to a publisher. “Evil nuns” is the hook. Despite the formula elements of character mutation, we are seeing something pretty extraordinary. Delicious scenes between these characters turn the illustration back on the storytelling, where there can only ever be the pretense of truth. Think back to those flashbacks, the carefully constructed mise en scene. It’s as if Coogan’s film works against the director’s.
And while, like the vast majority of films, Philomena is forced to make compromises (even offering concession to religion in its conclusion), this strand of meta-commentary lies unresolved; a seed that long outlives the running time. Now that’s subversive.