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VENICE - The unhappy case of Philomena Lee, we are told throughout Stephen Frears’ outwardly stoic but not-so-secretly mallow-centered “Philomena,” is far more than a ‘human interest’ story. That phrase, frequently used here as a catch-all for manipulative, exploitative ‘soft’ journalism short on both sincere humanity and interest, is first contemptuously uttered by disgraced political journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) when Lee’s daughter approaches him about looking into her mother’s agonized search for a long-lost son. “It’s a human interest story,” he brusquely informs her, helpfully adding that such stories are written both for and about the “weak-minded, vulnerable and ignorant.”
Well. It takes neither a student of psychology nor one of narrative structure to tell that the hardened Oxbridge man will undergo a change of heart in due course. And true enough, the elderly Irishwoman’s tale of woe – recounted six years after their initial meeting in Sixsmith’s 2009 book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” – certainly is more penetrating, not to mention more surprising, than the formulaic if true accounts of loss and redemption that fill the tabloids Philomena herself likes to read. Conflicted sexual identities, enduring institutional corruption and raw, never-to-be-resolved grief are all teased out of this one mild-mannered woman’s sentimental journey – with a hearty side order of Catholic guilt, of course.
That doesn’t stop Sixsmith from pitching it to a practically salivating magazine editor as human interest material of the glibbest variety, as he emphasises its salacious extremes – “Evil is good, story-wise,” he yammers, as Philomena shoots him a baffled look – and projects a cathartic happy ending for the then-unsolved case. Coogan’s screenplay, co-written with Jeff Pope, repeatedly chastises Sixsmith and his kind for packaging human tragedy in this fashion, but the irony is that Frears’ entertaining but thoroughly unchallenging film isn’t doing anything remotely different.
Timing its unexpected reveals with Swiss-watch precision for maximum pathos, and patronizing its salt-of-the-earth title character by playing her cultural and intellectual limitations for sympathetic laughs, “Philomena” is human interest filmmaking of a classy and highly effective order, but its repeated sneers at the adjusted-reality fixation of modern middlebrow culture are more than a little disingenuous.
The Catholic Church has been much in the news for the abuse it has enacted on the bodies and minds of young men; but its equally unconscionable maltreatment of the fairer sex remains a less explored scandal. Peter Mullan’s searing 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters” was a breakthrough in that regard, documenting life in the workhouses (or ‘Asylums’) managed by the Church for “fallen” women. It’s a world that “Philomena” revisits in less gritty flashback scenes that nonetheless, thanks to the saturated, soft-toned wizardry of genius cinematographer Robbie Ryan (surely the best man ever to shoot for Frears), carry real atmospheric weight.
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