I got the chance to see the movie Philomena last night, starring my favourite funny guy, Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote it) and that great great actress (not least for As Time Goes By and James Bond) Dame Judy Dench. Three things have stayed with me after seeing this true life drama about Philomena Lee, and the search she underwent with journalist Martin Sixsmith, for the son that was taken from her. But first I want to say I really enjoyed it, found it engaging, harrowing, moving and funny.
That said I have learnt again this year an important lesson about the movies – the phrase based on a true story does not mean everything you are about to see actually happened. Like Argo and Rush, Philomena draws on a true story, but also plays with the details. And these days, when you can look everything up on the world wide webternet I strongly advise coming back from the cinema and doing a little light reading. Philomena features a lot of discussion about God and the church, and the nuns who took away Philomena’s son do not come off well in this film. However, in an article in the Guardian Martin Sixsmith said that “The nuns were lovely,” after visiting the convent at Roscrea with Philomena. He describes the mother superior as “a friendly, educated woman … who had devoted her life to the care of disadvantaged and disabled people.” This, as the Guardian points out, is not how it comes across in the movie. I’m not wishing to put down the film, which features a lot of the truth, and certainly communicates a heart-rending story in a powerful and engaging way. I’d certainly watch it again.
The other two thoughts spring from dialogue in the film between Philomena and Martin Sixsmith. At one point she asks him if he believes in God, to which he replies something along the lines of, ‘I think that’s too complicated a question for a simple answer.’ When he then asks her if she believes in God, she replies, rather simply, ‘Yes.’ This made me think about the meaning of belief in God, because in some ways Sixsmith has a point. Is it about what we think in our heads? About past decisions we have made? Present attitudes and worldviews? Feelings and emotions? A way of life? The simple answer to all that is probably ‘yes’. And the complicated answer is probably also ‘yes’.
Later in the film an angry Sixsmith confronts the nuns demanding the truth about Philomena’s son. Philomena interrupts and offers the nuns her forgiveness for what has happened. She tells Sixsmith that she doesn’t want to be like him. She says, ‘It must be so exhausting.’ It’s a little comment which sums up so much. Philomena is a straightforward kind of person. She believes in God, she believes in forgiveness. She has been very hurt in the past and still feels the pain. But she disarms those around her with her simplicity and honesty. It left me thinking, and it seemed to me to be, as they say, ‘the beating heart of the film’.