And just like that, Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand are robbed of the title of Most Cloying and Thoroughly Preposterous Duo on a Road Trip in Movie History (for last year’s The Guilt Trip). Who could’ve imagined a film would come along and snatch it away so soon? But this — and this alone — is what formerly credible director Stephen Frears (The Grifters) has accomplished with his latest. Philomena is so pandering, patronizing and proudly by the numbers it makes the The Guilt Trip look like Lawrence of Arabia.
The supremely gifted Judi Dench pulls a De Niro here, trading on her legend in the service of a profitable triviality. I’ve seen Lifetime movies with more artistic integrity than this adaptation of Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Scripted by Jeff Pope and the film’s costar, Steve Coogan, the picture tells the fact-based story of an Irish woman who teams up with a Brit journalist to find the son she was forced to give up 50 years earlier.
Lee, we learn, was a victim of the Magdalene Laundries, a collusion between the government and the Catholic church in which unmarried mothers were forced to perform slave labor in convents. Enormous profits were amassed not only from contracts with hotels and the military but from the sale of children born there. The Irish government officially admitted complicity for the first time this year.
All that’s in the book. And that’s where most of it stayed — the better to morph the tale of a woman’s lifetime of regret into a feel-good buddy film. The often incongruously comic odyssey takes the odd couple to Washington, D.C., and offers yuks at the unsophisticated biddy’s expense.
The filmmakers portray Philomena as being as clueless as if she’d left the convent that week rather than decades before. At a hotel, for example, scanning the on-demand options, she declares Big Momma’s House irresistible. Visiting the Lincoln Memorial, she quips, “Look at him up there in his big chair!” She’s demeaningly depicted recounting the plots of bodice-rippers she reads.
Of course, that’s when the film’s not contriving to jerk tears. The pair’s search yields heart-tugging results. Odds are defied, and the nuns who victimized Philomena in her youth make a third-act reappearance. We learn they continued to victimize her in adulthood, secretly intervening to block attempts at a reunion. These are some seriously twisted sisters.
Which brings us to perhaps the picture’s only unpredictable aspect. With the arrival of awards season, the movie’s makers are trying to change their story. At any rate, to spin it.
Fearing that perception of the film as antichurch might alienate some viewers and limit its appeal to voting bodies, Harvey Weinstein has gone into damage-control mode. He petitioned the Motion Picture Association of America to get the film’s rating softened to PG-13, concerned that an R rating would be off-putting to “church families.” Both Coogan and Dench assisted in the effort.
The one unexpected voice in this Tinseltown jockeying is that of Lee herself, who took the unusual step recently of responding to the author of a negative review. “I forgive you for not taking the time to understand my story,” she wrote. “Stephen’s movie is meant to be a testament to good things, not an attack [on the church].” I won’t give away the film’s ending, but my guess is anyone who sees Philomena will be hard-pressed to compile a list of good things the church did for this poor woman.
Indeed, its cruelty and corruption are sort of the point of Sixsmith’s book. You can’t blame Lee for defending the film made from it, I suppose. Just bear in mind, this is the same woman who considered Big Momma’s House must-see moviemaking.