Rare is the film that centers itself around religion without glorifying it or demonizing it. It's an easy trap to fall into, as filmmakers interested in tackling religious topics are generally doing so out of their desire to promote their own opinion through their work. However, Philomena is that rare film that addresses the debate between faith and skepticism without doing either any injustice, nor does it encourage the audience to pick a side. This is all told through a touching story about two vastly different people trying to find a long lost son.
Philomena gave birth fifty years ago to a son. Because she was a teenager, her family disowned her. She and her son lived in a Catholic convent, where she would work endlessly to repay the nuns for taking her in. Then, one day, the nuns sold Philomena's son to an American couple, and she never saw her son again. The story picks up with Philomena as an old woman, played by Judi Dench, when she decides to finally tell her daughter about her missing son. Philomena's daughter brings this story to the attention of Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, a cynical journalist who has recently lost his job, and generally considers human interest stories like this to be beneath him. However, something draws him to the case, and the two begin an investigation to find Philomena's son.
The real heart of the story comes from Philomena's and Martin's interactions. Philomena is a devout Catholic who wishes to see the good in people, but is also somewhat naive. Judi Dench gives an amazing performance, ranging from being obliviously funny to heartbreakingly depressed, all while retaining the persona of a simple woman dealing with some complex emotions. Martin, on the other hand, is a much more educated person, and he thinks himself superior to Philomena because he doesn't have blind faith and finds comfort in reason. He's also a realist, and isn't afraid to be rude if he thinks a situation warrants it.
The interplay between these two characters is at times funny, awkward, touching, or sometimes even tragic. Martin is often the straight-man to some of Philomena's more ridiculous lines, but he's also a reluctant emotional support to her as more pieces of the mystery come together. What really struck me, though, was the way religion is addressed through their conversations. These are two characters that have vastly different outlooks on faith, more specifically Catholicism, and the film doesn't shy away from the two of them clashing over it. However, what the film does so well is treat both outlooks on life as entirely valid, and both characters learn something from one another. Philomena and Martin present their cases, and both are sometimes humbled by what the other has to say. It's a refreshing look at faith when most art is content to address it in either a positive or negative light.
My awe at the handling of faith aside, Philomena is a fantastic film that was entirely deserving of making the Best Picture nominee list for the Academy Awards. Dench gives a stellar performance in one of the most emotionally touching films I've seen in a long time. The script is brilliantly written, and it's something that should appeal to both the high-brow Martins and the less critical Philomenas of the world. Give this one a look.
Where do you lie on the spectrum of faiths, non-faiths, and philosophies? Can you think of another film that addresses faith so neutrally? Let me know in a comments! (Seriously, I'd love to see some.)