A Look at the Subversive Nature of Human-Interest Stories

Director: STEPHEN FREARS/2013

Philomena is based on the true story of Philomena Lee who was forced to give up her child as a teenager by the Irish Catholic Church because the baby was created in “sin”.  She delivered the baby, experiencing tremendous pain due to the baby being breached, and was not allowed pain relief so she could fully experience “God’s judgement” for her actions.

Philomena was allowed to see her child, who was in the church’s orphanage, once a week, but spent the rest of the time working seven days a week for the convent as a penance for her evil, wayward ways.  Philomena’s child was one day adopted along with another child.  The Church would not allow Philomena to know about the adoption, nor say goodbye.  Instead, she was reminded that this was all her fault due to her giving in to sexual temptation and that God was punishing her.

Judi Dench stars as Philomena who has carried this secret of her youth for 50 years and who can no longer bear the burden.  Still a devout follower of Christ and an active member of the local Catholic church, Philomena can no longer bear the weight of the cross she bears of believing she had abandoned her son.  Having only a single picture of her boy, that was given to her by a kind nun, she continues to think about and pray for an opportunity to be reunited. She confides in her daughter that she had another child and this begins the journey of discovery.

Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the screenplay, plays disgraced BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who is looking to rebound from a recent scandal.  Taking on Philomena’s story, at the insistence of Philomena’s daughter, Sixsmith seeks to tell a human-interest story as a way to get his career back on track.  At first even he is reluctant, having been a hard-hitting political correspondent and advisor to Tony Blair, to take on such a puff piece.  He believes that such stories are simply “a euphemism for stories about vulnerable, ignorant, weak-minded people.”  In order to get an editor to sign off on it, he pitches the story as being about “evil nuns” simply to appease journalism’s need to have “good guys” and “bad guys”.  And so he begins to investigate the claims Philomena is making, starting with the convent itself, with the goal of reuniting her with her 50-year old son, and benefiting from the publicity it will bring him.

Judi Dench steals every scene she is in and gives a mesmerizing performance that fully demonstrates a woman deeply affected by her long-suffering, and who also possesses razor-sharp wit, and deep conviction.  Just a momentary gaze of her eyes out a window is enough to convey what many actors spend whole hours in a film not-conveying.  Coogan is equally brilliant as the cynical, self-deprocating reporter who has no faith in God and who is flabbergasted by Philomena’s continued devotion to the very institution who caused her so much pain.  As he spends more time with her, his definition of a human-interest piece begins to change as he witnesses the corruption and cover-up within the Irish Catholic church.

The film is a mystery, whisking you along on Philomena’s journey to discover the fate of her son, with the hopes of being reunited with him.  It is also an odd-couple styled comedy pitting Philomena against Martin Sixsmith.  But below the surface, it is also a brilliantly deconstructive and subversive social commentary on religion, adoption, politics, sexual orientation, love, faith, justice, and ultimately forgiveness.

While the film sets up the plot catering to our need for nice, neat, and orderly boxes, the story weaves in and out of them, upending our conventional views and presenting us with more questions that drive us further into the narrative.  This mirrors perfectly the frustration of Philomena as she encounters roadblock after roadblock in her journey for her lost son.  While the film sets up the good guys (Philomena and Martin) and pits them against the bad guys (Irish Catholic Church, Journalists), ultimately both are skewered and redeemed.  Philomena is the least cynical person in the film towards her faith, and the institution that put her through a life-time of pain.  In fact, this arc is the one most powerfully portrayed in the film by Dench as she vacillates between the deeply held pain she feels from injustice, and the desire to emulate Christ by loving and forgiving those who have wronged her.  It is the driving force for her search, and the means by which she finds resolution.

While the Catholic Church is given lots of criticism throughout the film, they are also shown to be largely genuine figures of compassion.   The rogue elements within their ranks are exposed to be individuals obsessed with their own sense of power rather than an indictment for a systemic failure of the entire structure.  And while Coogan’s portrayal of Sixsmith is one of a former alter boy turned atheist, even he is transformed enough to set aside his own grievances in exchange for healing.

Journalism itself is demonstrated to be both a force for good, allowing the truth to be revealed, and a means of perpetrating further injustice in the way it uses the pain and emotions of others to sell more papers, or get better ratings.  Sixsmith’s euphemism about human-interest stories being for weak minded people might be taking more aim at those who would pursue the stories and produce such drivel for public consumption than it does the individuals who consume it.  The fact that we all have weaknesses and identify in the struggles, hopes, and journeys of others is more indicative of the need for such stories so that we might find the strength to rise up and pursue the greater aims of life.  Namely faith, hope, love, forgiveness, and justice.  No one has to be alone, or be a lost cause. Ultimately, Philomena transforms itself from being a simple human-interest piece to being a path forward, where what is lost may be truly found.