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Faith confounds worldly wisdom

01 November 2013

Stephen Brown sees Judi Dench in her new film, Philomena

"Odd couple"? Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena (Cert. 12A)

"Odd couple"? Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena (Cert. 12A)

PHILOMENA (Cert. 12A) promises to be a runaway success. It has already won film-festival awards, including one from Interfilm, an ecumenical organisation promoting dialogue between Christianity and film.

Philomena does, in fact, feel rather like a religious conversation. It would be deemed contentious to attribute this to Judi Dench's Quaker, Steve Coogan's Roman Catholic, and the director Stephen Frears's Jewish backgrounds; but there is an unmistakably religious feel to the whole piece.

It is based on a true story written up by the once RC, now atheist, former journalist Martin Sixsmith, as depicted by Coogan in an appropriately restrained performance.He meets the ageing PhilomenaLee (Dench), who has for nearly half a century been searching for her son, Anthony, born in 1950s Tipperary, where the pregnant teenaged Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark), having been denounced by her family, takes refuge with the Sisters of Mercy - not that we see much evidence of that particular quality.

The Sisters force Philomena to give Anthony away. The film stops short of Catholic-bashing, not least because of Philomena's continuing faith within that Church. "I don't want to hate people," she says. The cynical Sixsmith, however, never apparently reconverted, is impressed by the spiritual ebullience and determination of the woman.

The film evokes tears of sorrow and laughter. I suspect that the latter are the work of Coogan rather than his co-writer, Jeff Pope; but, whoever was responsible, there are some classic lines, including a sideswipe at Ryanair, and another when Sixsmith asks why her God would bestow on us sexual desire that he wants us to resist. Innocent abroad she may be, but, time after time, Philomena confounds worldly wisdom with insight, love, and a faith that recognises her shortcomings while rejoicing in its strengths.

It is arguable that Philomena and Sixsmith are only the latest manifestations of that dear old genre, the odd couple on a journey of transformation. Think of Rain  Man, for instance. The difference is in the way that this particular tale is told. The ending manages to avoid both cliché and schmaltz.

That is greatly due to Frears's experience as a director. From My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen, he knows when and how to reveal or withhold vital information. What starts as a human-interest story becomes a soul-searching quest for both the main characters. Interfilm's commendation could well be right in suggesting that the film's tolerance and respect for differences may provide a model of how to deal, in our secular societies, with various religious and philosophical convictions. 

IN THE same week as Philomena is released we also have a French-language film about how a family deals with illegitimacy. Class, culture, and era may differ, but in each situation, religious orders play a decisive part. Guillaume Nicloux's The Nun (Cert. 12A) is at least the third film version of Denis Diderot's novel La Religieuse, published in 1796 after his death.

This adaptation focuses on the kindnesses as well as the cruelties of convent life. There is a sense in which women here are, in the director's words, victims of "an oppressive, patriarchal regime". While particular sisters do lay down their lives freely in taking the veil, there are others, such as the young Suzanne (Pauline Étienne), being forced into it. She is ordered by her parents, in no uncertain terms, to get herself to a nunnery. All their substance has been expended on the other two sisters' dowries, and they cannot afford her. Or so it would seem.

Although we mainly see the world through the young woman's eyes, you could also think of the film as a tale of three mother-superiors. Madame de Moni (Françoise Lebrun) is gently understanding, hoping against hope that Suzanne can learn to love her metaphorical chains. When Mother dies under possibly malevolent circumstances, her successor Sœur Christine (the rather beautiful Louise Bourgoin) employs blatantly coercive techniques. After Suzanne experiences many humiliations and suffering, this mother superior is exposed by a visiting priest.

The final mother superior (Isabelle Huppert) at an entirely new convent gives Suzanne a great deal of attention. One begins suspecting this is more than just Christian charity, but erotic, too. Incarceration in convents, we are being told, can (when not freely chosen) lead to violence, cruelty, inappropriate sexual behaviour, and madness. Even though the film rarely hammers it home, we can see how, generally speaking, it is male control of society in the name of Christ which leads to such conduct among the women.

There are exceptions: men who behave well and honorably. All in all, the clergy come out of the story rather nicely - sympathetic confessors, proactive prelates, and even a priest who clandestinely secures Suzanne's freedom. Sadly, he, too, was forced into holy vows, helping us to see that not only women are the victims of oppression.

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