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
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
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