I braved the single-digit temperature to wait for the M5 Bus at Columbus Circle. After three M104s and two M7s passed, finally an M5 arrived and I got to thaw out en route to the Paris Theater at 58th and 5th to see Oscar-nominee Judi Dench in Philomena. The Oscar-nominated British film is loosely based on Martin Sixmith's The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, which tells the story of retired nurse Philomena Lee's search for the son she had given birth to as an Irish teenager and had been forced to give up for adoption. She teams up with an out-of-work journalist (Martin Sixmith, played by Steve Coogan), who is reduced (in his estimation) to chasing a "human interest story" and has found a perfect one in Philomena' search for what happened to her son.
The paring of the two is very effective. A lapsed Catholic, Martin represents the cultural elite, secular knowledge class. A still practicing Catholic, Philomena personifies working class cultural tastes. Only gradually, does it become clear that Philomena is smart and perceptive and intuitively knows people perhaps better than the sophisticated Martin. A lot of the humor in the film derives from this culture clash. At first Philomena seems to be the object of the movie's humor, but after a while one wonders whether it is really Martin who is being shown to be both ignorant and foolish.
Of course, the two depend on each other. Philomena cannot find her son on her own. She needs Martin's journalistic skill and contacts (and the budget advanced to him to get his story). Martin wants the story to get back in the game. He can't get very far without Philomena herself. In fact, it is Philomena who gets in the door to speak with her dead son's boyfriend after Martin has dramatically failed.
Philomena is neither naive nor a fool, but neither does she give in to Martin's secular, anti-religious negativity. In fact, in the penultimate scene at the convent, after Martin has confronted the elderly Sister Hildegard (a fictional event that never actually happened in the true story), Philomena's measured forgiveness contrasts with Martin's confrontational style. Revealingly, she tells him she doesn't want to be an angry person like him!
The film highlights the already familiar story of the harsh treatment some unwed mothers received at the hands of the Irish Church as recently as 50 years ago. But that is not the only harsh reality highlighted in the film. Philomena's son had advanced high in Republican elite circles, but had to keep his sexuality secret and found himself working for an administration that seemed tepid in its response to the AIDS crisis, the disease he eventually died of.
Set against the background of the great cultural fissures of our time, the movie sensitively invites us to contemplate the basic emotions and relationships that make the human predicament simultaneously so complex and so meaningful.