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Last night I went to see the British comedy drama Philomena.


  1. It's British
  2. My friends Peter and Kath recommended it
  3. Judi Dench is a great actress
  4. Steve Coogan – I must admit I didn't recognise this actor's name initially. But as he and a guy called Jeff Pope won prizes for the screen play of this movie I think we can safely say his talents go beyond being good eye-candy
  5. Ever since I read the book Oranges and Sunshine, I've had an interest in child migrants and children's homes in general. The City of Boroondara where I work had a number of these homes. Nazareth House, one of the nursing homes to which we now deliver books was one of them. If you are interested, Museum Victoria currently has an exhibition called Inside: life in children's homes and institutions. But, here's a tip. Don't forget your tissues.

Philomena met my expectations on all of the above levels but it also resonated with the writer in me. You see, once you set out on the writing journey you begin to understand the elements of a good story (at least, you think you do). This means you analyse every book and movie. You may think this sounds dull. But it isn't. You get to enjoy the story on two levels. Firstly, as intended, you go along for the ride. Secondly, you appreciate how delicate a balance the writer has wrought. And, as a writer, watching Philomena brought me pure pleasure. This may sound odd, considering the subject matter. I'd best explain.

The premise of the movie is not fiction – it is the true story of a mother searching for her lost son. Sixsmith's Daily Mail article: Stolen from his mother – sold to the highest bidder, outlines the nuts and bolts of what occurred. But I also know that truth is stranger than fiction. No matter how verifiable a story, a writer must give their reader/viewer a reason to believe. In the case of Philomena, this was achieved through its subtle comedic elements. There were so many coincidences, in this movie, so much sheer good fortune, and so many life lessons, that the story would have been an out-and-out corn-fest without them.

On the face of it we have a journalist helping an elderly woman search for her lost son. But that is not the film's real story. The real, inner story is about a hard-bitten journalist who reluctantly took on a human interest story to revive his blighted career and in the process came to respect the human being at its core. About an elderly woman whose religious experience had punished her in so many ways yet she still had something to teach the hard-bitten journalist about life and faith while, at the same time, learning to stand up for herself and to believe in her search.

See what I mean? Tricky. Hollywood couldn't have produced this screen play.

I am yet to read Sixsmith's 2009 book: The lost child of Philomena Lee (I'm number forty on the library reservation list) so I don't know whether the real Philomena read romance novels and talked nonsense to strangers. Or whether she possessed the same mix of ignorance and innocence that Dench so skilfully portrayed. I don't know whether Sixsmith ever quoted T. S. Elliot or was indeed a lapsed Catholic. I don't even know whether he was having a faith crisis. Let alone whether he barged in on an elderly nun called Hildegard. But I do know that Croggan and Pope fictionalised these elements to create an empathy for both characters. The subtle clash of class, education and life experience created a powerful tension. In my opinion, this lifted the film out of the ordinary, producing a sad, hopeful, memorable mix of emotions. The most sobering being that thousands of Irish mothers like Philomena Lee are still looking for their lost children.

 

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