Philomena was produced by Gabrielle Tana and a team of brave people who adapted Philomena Lee's true story from the book by Martin Sixsmith. The screenplay is by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, an actor who understands character with original insight in this role of the reporter who hears Philomena's story. The picture, Philomena, is nominated for an Oscar because this is a classic story of a search by a character we love, desperate to find someone she lost long ago. From 'Tara' where Scarlet longs to keep her land, to 'Oz', where Dorothy longs to return Home to Kansas, and, on and on, this yearning for reconnection grabs us. And Judi Dench is nominated for an Oscar because, as she reveals her character's evolving strength, she never loses the mix of vulnerability, initiative and humor; the complexity of the sturdy woman who is still that devastated young girl.
Philomena's true story not only tears our hearts out but Philomena has the courage to confront the Catholic Church. Like some of the best pictures ever made (Journey for Margaret, The Good Earth, To Kill a Mockingbird), our attachment to the character drives the story as it ignites our awareness and alerts our attention to one issue we do not see. Or do not wish to see. There's another issue I'll come round to.
There were a lot of devastating images onscreen this year. But I will never forget the face of the young Philomena, played by Sophie Kennedy Clark, sobbing at the window in the convent as she watches her little son being taken away, sold into adoption because his mother is a sinner. The sale brings in a tidy sum for the convent. Which, by the way, maintains its superior serenity by the labors of young girls who "atone" for their sins under the looming discipline of nuns. This was surely not God's will -- and I don't think His Son, Jesus, would have much to do with it either.
I saw Philomena at an event at the huge Egyptian Theatre, presented by Jeff Goldsmith who, like Ben Mankiewicz, hosts movies with insight and humor. They love movies, understand how the history of this art form defines the story of our culture, not by the rillarah of special effects, but by the stories and unique mix of talents which make movies which move us.
Before the film was shown, the generous (and patient) Stephen Frears presided over a Question and Answer. Frears, rather like Churchill himself, has sagacity set in his bones deep under the soothing flesh of hangabout tweeds. Mr. Frears turned it into an exchange as witty, as unpretentious, as the very picture we were here to see. You could fill any theatre with an evening of Frears just considering movies, serving his remarks in the buttery sauce of adroit British composure and answering questions designed, by an audience (because this is Our Town) to show their own involvement in "the industry."
Example -- question: "It's like so difficult for me to balance the creative and the commercial. Like how do you do that?"
Answer: "I'm cheap. I make pictures that are cheap. I make films not for money; for the audience. And I am the first audience."
Q: "What is your philosophy on death?"
A: "To avoid it as long as possible."
Q: "As an auteur I often wonder what is the most critical role the auteur plays?"
A: "I don't know -- about auteurism. I'm a director for hire. The director is the referee. Part of the job is to make people turn up. The actors tell the story. And the editor is the clever one. I get a sofa and have a bit of a sleep."
Q: "I've been working on my first film for five years. When do you decide to finish?"
A: "You finish when you finish. And you're done."
Q: "And as a director do you have a personal God?"
A: "Well, someone invented the world. And I'm in it."
Q: "What is your position on creating screenplays? Where do you work?"
A: "I make films in my stomach. My position is that of a storyteller."
At last the movie began. The haunting silence from throughout the screening was the sound of audience on edge of their seats.
The essence of the fierce emotional tie between mother and son in days long before feminism, has never been captured so well. The son, the child, we see being taken away, is not only her child but every dream she might be able to create for his future, a future this young girl working in the torturous convent laundry room, will never now even dare to imagine. All Philomena wants, as she searches, is to know he's all right.
You do not get over any major loss in life and, perhaps most of all, the loss of a child.
This girl grows up to become the powerful Judi Dench who plays Philomena, determined to find her son. She turns for help, and, here is where I found a remarkable surprise: the young reporter, played by Steve Coogan, neither patronises nor dismisses her. Watching Judi Dench reveal Philomena's wisdom is a lesson in the anatomy of well seasoned emotion. His bemusement is present, at first. This caricature of young people's attitude about really old people does exist in reality and it's great to see a movie where respect and even love overtakes the exasperation with our memory issues, our baffled responses to these new ways of doing things.
So another big reason Philomena is nominated for an Oscar is because this subject of age and its emotional impact on those of us who ARE redefining the condition because we ARE old, and those who never really expected they'd have to deal with it, is exhilarating and fresh. Even in L.A., where we hang from weights and wear hoodies to lunch.
I've been told that age is not the time for expansion. But times have changed. Philomena's story would not have been made into a movie when I was growing up in L.A. The most tall, blond beautiful girls I knew were Catholic. The Church they belonged to was celebrated in movies about sweet understanding priests. My grandmother took me to see Going My Way. Bing Crosby sang "Turra lura lai." His face was a serene silver giant on the screen. This, I thought, is what the word "holy" means. My grandmother had a heart attack. An ambulance came. I never saw the end of the movie. But I guessed if my grandma did die she'd go to Heaven and it would be a convent and Pia Lindstrom's mom Ingrid Bergman would be there to greet her in her nun outfit.
Today the notions of spiritual power have changed, and the acceptance of all the various wonders of sexual choice is blooming.
Philomena shows an unusually wise young person's understanding of one of the mysteries you have to live long enough to know: when someone you love is lost, a child, a mate, a parent, you do not "get over it" -- you may grow around it, but that person's moments remain, like a book of photos, an "app" you can return to, old movies, like the ones Philomena sees (they are real home movies). We all go through this loss with real children who have their own roads to travel. It takes a young person with longitude of perception to see beyond the caricatures (of religion, race, gender and age) to work with us, to catch on, and to make a film which goes deep as Philomena.