Cinema, like chemistry, is the study of change. In the classic Hollywood narrative – still utilised by most mainstream films – a protagonist starts at a point of equilibrium, has a journey of some kind, defeats something, and ends the story in a different, usually better situation. There’s a reason why this basic narrative model predates the invention of cinema. Problem solving is central to the human condition: it’s fundamentally satisfying to see characters face an internal or external obstacle and overcome it.
Employing this narrative structure becomes difficult, of course, when depicting actual events. Reality is just too untidy and contradictory. In order to create elegant narratives out of the disappointments and dead ends of real life, filmmakers must condense, conflate and simplify. An implicit understanding exists: unless the changes are completely egregious, audiences are willing to accept a certain measure of factual massaging in service of a better story. This strategy, whilst useful to a screenwriter dealing with a 600-page novel about dense historical events, can also be eschewed in favour of directly confronting life’s inherently convoluted messiness. Where Stephen Frears’ mostly-terrific drama Philomena runs into difficulties is its inability to decide which of these approaches it wants to take.
Based on Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book, Philomena follows the former BBC correspondent (played by Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay) as he tries to help septuagenarian Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) find the son she was forced to give up for adoption half a century earlier. Having been unceremoniously fired from his job as a government advisor, Sixsmith is motivated by listlessness rather than compassion, dismissing Philomena’s plight as another human interest story about “the weak-minded, vulnerable and ignorant”. Frears cuts between the unlikely pair’s transatlantic investigations and the story of teenage Philomena, virtually imprisoned in a Magdalene home for the alleged sin of having a baby out of wedlock.
The character arc that Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope try to build into the plot is not unexpected: Sixsmith, initially self-absorbed and unfeeling, comes to care for Philomena, developing a righteous anger about the way the Catholic Church treated her and her child. What muddies this intended character development is that Sixsmith is unchanged by anything that happens. Unwilling and unable to understand Philomena – a devout Catholic who espouses forgiveness despite the enormous, shameful wrongs committed against her – he doesn’t learn anything from the experience. This is where the film seems unsure of what it’s trying to be: depicting a character who remains essentially the same regardless of external events is admirably in its realism, but it’s as if Coogan and Pope want the audience to respond to something that isn’t there. Sixsmith is unsympathetic at the start of the film, and almost no less unsympathetic by its conclusion, and the constancy seems unintentional.
When considering Sixsmith’s likeability problem, it’s useful to consider that this is a role Steve Coogan wrote for himself to perform. From the self-deluding Alan Partridge onward, Coogan has built a career out of playing vainglorious, often disagreeable characters (including the part of “Steve Coogan” in a handful of his collaborations with Michael Winterbottom). Underneath his characters’ inevitable arrogance, though, he has regularly managed to find other qualities – resilient ambition, and notes of melancholy and loneliness – that warm us to them. Coogan communicates Sixsmith’s underlying kindness on occasion, but it’s often lost amidst his self-interest. A character doesn’t need to be sympathetic to be interesting, but it’s clear that Sixsmith is meant to be, at least in part.
Part of the reason Sixsmith is problematic as a character is what also makes so much of the film pleasurable to watch: Philomena herself. Judi Dench is wonderful in the role, portraying the character with tremendous warmth and humanity. Regardless of her foibles, Philomena is so unerringly decent that Sixsmith’s irritation with her seems out of proportion, his condescending responses bordering on the cruel. Accordingly, the audience’s sympathies lie with Philomena from the beginning, so even when she is dottily reciting the plots of romance novels or getting overexcited at the concept of a hotel breakfast, the joke is never at her expense. Considering how easy it would have been to make her a figure of ridicule compared to urbane Sixsmith, the self-control is commendable.
It’s this sensitive depiction of Philomena that is essential to expressing the raw hurt that defines her. Philomena is complicated in a deeply human way, and it’s ultimately her faith – incomprehensible to Sixsmith considering what organised religion took from her – that provides the film with its thought-provoking, expectation-subverting denouement which denies both Sixsmith and the audience of the moral retribution they crave. A film that could have been glib or overly sentimental in other hands, Philomena’s impressive restraint can be credited to Frears. One of Britain’s most prolific and versatile directors, he demonstrates his experience by wisely getting out of the way, confident in the story’s power. The skill with which Philomena’s complex humanity is portrayed is to the credit of everyone involved. For Philomena alone, perhaps it’s worth the narrative muddle.