By JOHN MULDERIG, Catholic News Service | Published December 19, 2013
NEW YORK (CNS)—Though compelling, the fact-based drama “Philomena” (Weinstein) makes uncomfortable viewing for Catholic moviegoers.
That’s because this story of the titular character’s search for her long-lost son presents church institutions in a uniformly negative light.
Yet director Stephen Frears’ screen version of Martin Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” recognizes the enduring individual faith of this same warmhearted Irish woman—played with aplomb by Judi Dench—as the source of her endearing personality.
Flashbacks to Philomena’s teen years, during which she’s portrayed by Sophie Kennedy Clark, show us some of the worst aspects of Irish society in the 1950s. An encounter with a stranger at a county fair leaves young Philomena pregnant, and her family, scandalized and shamefaced, promptly abandons her.
With nowhere else to turn, Philomena is thrown on the not-very-abundant mercy of the nuns who run a local facility for unwed mothers. There she’s browbeaten, forced to endure a torturous breech delivery without anesthesia and only allowed to see her child for an hour a day. The rest of the time she toils in the convent laundry to work off her “debt” to the sisters.
But there’s worse to come. Mothers at the home are more or less forced to give their children up for adoption to rich American visitors to the Emerald Isle, and one day it’s Philomena’s turn to undergo this ordeal. The separation is absolute; Philomena loses all track of the boy.
Flash-forward 50 years and, for the first time, retired nurse Philomena shares her sad tale with her grown daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin). Through Jane, Philomena is able to enlist the help of cynical British reporter Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay).
Recently an adviser to Tony Blair’s Labor government, Sixsmith is at a loose end after being fired amid career-damaging circumstances. Though disdainful of human-interest stories, he nonetheless sees the appeal of Philomena’s quest and brings his investigative skills to bear on her behalf.
As chronicled in Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script, both the beginning and the conclusion of Philomena’s saga—the latter not to be detailed for fear of a spoiler—have the potential to jar believers’ sensibilities.
Thus, with reference to the church’s sexual teaching and Philomena’s past, altar-boy-turned-atheist Sixsmith asks her why God would endow us with an appetite he then wanted us to suppress. Not surprisingly, he seems blind to the difference between suppression and moderation, and ignores the obvious analogy that God did not give human beings the blessing of food so that we could become obese gluttons.
On the other hand, properly viewed, “Philomena” may serve to illustrate the dangers that can result when appreciation for the virtue of chastity degenerates into puritanical repression—and when objective moral truths are misused as judgmental bludgeons.
With the exception of one seemingly temporary crisis, moreover, Philomena herself is shown to cling tenaciously to the very faith by whose representatives she was so cruelly mistreated. In fact, her Gospel-based beliefs help to set up the contrast in personalities between the two leads on which much of the movie’s drama—as well as many of its interludes of much-needed comic relief—turn.
Throughout their interaction, Philomena’s religiously inspired enthusiasm for life, friendliness toward others and willingness to forgive are shown to be in stark opposition to Sixsmith’s jaded, isolating air of condescension.
Even so, a large measure of discernment is required to tackle the challenging material on offer here, including a conflicted but not fundamentally hostile outlook on faith.
The film contains mature themes including premarital sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancy and homosexuality, a scene of painful childbirth, a couple of same-sex kisses, a few rough terms and a couple of crude expressions. The Catholic News Service classification is L—limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (Warner Bros.)
Lively sequel in which a once-timid hobbit (Martin Freeman) continues his courageous quest to help a group of dwarves (led by Richard Armitage) recapture their ancestral mountain stronghold from the terrifying dragon (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) who displaced them. As he does so, the wizard (Ian McKellen) who originally chose him for this seemingly unlikely mission works to prevent larger, darker forces from consolidating their power. Director Peter Jackson’s second installment in a trilogy of films based on Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel is—like its 2012 predecessor, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”—too intense for the smallest viewers. But most others will likely appreciate the peppier pace of his return to Tolkien’s fictional world of Middle-earth as well as the implicit warnings against the corrupting influence of wealth and power that accompany it. Much vivid but bloodless action violence, some occult undertones, a brief instance of mildly sexual humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
“Nebraska” (Paramount Vantage)
A road trip mends frayed family ties in this quiet, unassuming blend of comedy and drama filmed in black-and-white. Director Alexander Payne tackles the issue of caring for elderly parents with realism and sensitivity. But, as penned by screenwriter Bob Nelson, his film also includes material unsuitable for most viewers. A grizzled and frail patriarch (Bruce Dern) receives a sweepstakes solicitation in the mail offering a “prize” of $1 million, which he can collect in person in Lincoln, Neb.—a long way from his home in Montana. His overbearing wife (June Squibb) thinks he’s crazy, but his estranged son (Will Forte) is more sympathetic. Seeking an opportunity to mend fences, he sets off with his father on a journey that includes a portentous stopover in Dad’s hometown. Amid the salty language and bawdy humor, there are some positive core values and good people on display, along with a celebration of familial love, respect and understanding. Frequent profane and crude language, some sexual references and innuendoes, a few jokes directed at Catholics. The Catholic News Service classification is L—limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R—restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
“The Book Thief” (Fox)
Mature adolescents should be able to enjoy this beautifully filmed adaptation of Markus Zusak’s young-adult novel, in which Sophie Nelisse plays a young Nazi-era German girl who learns compassion through reading and through the example of her adoptive parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), becoming somehow immune to the worst of the Hitler Youth’s indoctrination. Many adults, on the other hand, may be shocked at what appears to be a fairy-tale gloss on the Holocaust, as director Brian Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni have removed all the nuance and moral ambiguity found in Zusak’s book. Some anti-Semitic dialogue and scenes of wartime bombings. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating, PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (Weinstein)
Handsome but flawed biographical profile of South African dissident-turned-president Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) who, after spending 25 years in prison for resisting apartheid, advocated peace and forgiveness and endeavored to steer his country away from violence toward reconciliation. Based on Mandela’s 1994 autobiography, the movie glows with admiration for its subject and is bent on demonstrating the historical significance of his personal journey, with second wife Winnie’s (Naomie Harris) vengeful reaction to the mistreatment she suffered serving as schematic counterpoint. Director Justin Chadwick’s glossy presentation has a static quality, as if he’s trying to preserve Mandela’s legacy in amber. But regardless of any cinematic or historical limitations, the picture rightly lauds a statesman whose greatest virtue was his ability to see beyond his personal circumstances and discern what was best for his nation as a whole. Considerable violence—including many gun battles, bombings and an immolation—demeaning treatment of prisoners, a half-dozen premarital and adulterous sexual situations, though without nudity or explicit activity, some crude language and hate speech. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.