The left will have its villains and nothing will stop them. Philomena is a feel bad film in which nothing positive can possibly be said about its chosen enemies, in this case organised religion, specially the Catholic church, and the Republican Party in the US, and especially Ronald Reagan.
But in this case, because there is a true story of some kind that lies beneath the plot, the film is forced to hold onto some actual facts that are obstacles to its heavy-handed lessons. I won’t say there would have been no bad actions taken by anyone in real life since who can know, because there are some pretty mean-minded people around and you find them everywhere. But let’s start with a few bits.
I don’t wish to be judgmental, but not to put too fine a point on it, the young Philomena is something of a tart. She meets a boy at a fair around age 14, goes off into the bushes and never sees the lad again. Even in our more permissive times, that seems unacceptable. What parent today would find that OK? And that fifty years later she can reminisce about how wonderful that moment was, makes me wonder whether that could have been her first occasion since she has no memory of a painful deflowering moment.
The idea that an unwed mother back in the 1950s would keep her child back has a probability in the range of zero or perhaps less. Few abortions, some unwed mothers and therefore many adoptions. So the very premise of the film, that her son was adopted out, is hardly a tale of horror since it was standard. There is so little likelihood that she would have been allowed to keep her son that it is ridiculous even to set that up as a premise. But a bit of an anachronism and we can rage at the attitudes of those who ran the orphanage as if it were the year before last.
But then there are the kinds of things that Philomena could not possibly know, such as when she is in the middle of a breech birth, that they decide to let her suffer and not offer any medical assistance. If you are in the middle of labour pains, you don’t know what conversations are being held somewhere else, and no one was going to tell her later.
The son is adopted out but those at the centre of the storyline work out that he has been adopted by an American family. Moreover, the son turns out to be (1) gay and (2) a high official in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. A nice chap, very accomplished. Therefore, he is a “closet” gay since no one in the Republican Party can be seen to have accepted his sexual orientation. Except that everyone you meet is perfectly aware, especially since he dies of AIDS.
But since it goes against the Code of the Left that amongst Republicans no one cares, they have to make it out that he has had to hide this side of his life because otherwise you would have to think that someone like Ronald Reagan – and therefore Republicans in general – are indifferent. Which is the case but cannot be allowed to be shown.
Then, finally, there is the scene at the end when Sister Hildegarde is confronted with her hatred of the sin of carnality. The scene is so perfect as a concluding statement, so nicely framed and to the point, that there can be no doubt that it is entirely made up. If it’s in the book, I don’t believe it’s true. But the narrative is all, and this gives us the high point finale in which all views are satisfied, except perhaps my own.
A clever and manipulative film that you enjoy in spite of yourself, and to a large extent because Judy Dench does stand up for the church until the very last moment. Being aware in the confines of the theatre of how everything is structured doesn’t quite protect you because you are driven by the story. They set the stage and there is little chance to resist as you sit and absorb the plot. But a sign of our decadent times that such an anti-Catholic film is even possible never mind a box office sensation. Try it out with some other religions and see how you go.