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Film / Philomena

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Philomena is a 2013 comedy-drama film directed by Stephen Frears, based on the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a young woman in 1950s Ireland who becomes pregnant and is sent to one of the infamous Magdalene Laundries. Her child is forcibly adopted at age two. She remains silent until her son's fiftieth birthday.

Enter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a journalist and former spin doctor who has been sacked. Philomena's daughter, only just learning of her mother's secret past, tries to get Martin to take on what he dismissively calls a "human interest story". However, he accepts, somewhat grudgingly, and he and Philomena go on an Odd Couple road trip round Ireland and America, trying to find the location of Philomena's Anthony.

Tropes appearing in this film:

  • Based on a True Story: Based on the story of Philomena Lee, Michael Hess and Martin Sixsmith.
  • Berserk Button: Sister Hildegard sits in stony silence as Martin berates her, until he says what she did "wasn't very Christian."
  • Bitch Alert: Sister Hildegard, though the word bitch is actually a bit tame for her.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The younger nuns appear to be very nice to Philomena but are still knowingly hiding information about her son from her.
  • Bookends: Martin and Philomena's investigation starts and finishes with a visit at Roscrea Abbey. Martin notices it and quotes T. S. Eliot: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
  • Brick Joke: Martin, looking for a new project after being fired from his job, floats the idea of writing about Russian history several times, to complete disinterest and discouragement from his friends and colleagues. In the epilogue, we learn that he did in fact write several successful books about Russian history.
  • Character Development: Martin develops a lot more compassion for Philomena as the story goes on.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Sixsmith is shown drinking a pint glass of Guinness stout with the logo clearly visible. It looks like a simple case of Product Placement until he makes the connection between the harp logo and the pin Michael wears in the photographs of his White House service.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Philomena.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Martin met Philomena's son in Washington years ago.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Martin is constantly snarking — which goes entirely over Philomena's head most of the time.
  • Disability as an Excuse for Jerkassery: Or at least to be called out on past jerkassery, for Sister Hildegard.
  • The Ditz: Philomena.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: In Washington, the Capitol Building can be seen from Philomena's hotel window. Then Philomena and Martin visit the Lincoln Memorial.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Martin realizes that Michael was aware of — and took pride in — his Irish ancestry.
  • Exact Words:
    • The nuns' claim that all of the relevant paperwork that would help Philomena track down Anthony was burned in a fire, with the assumption that it was an accidental fire. After talking to some locals, Martin is told that it was a bonfire where the nuns intentionally burned all their records to avoid exposing the fact that they were literally selling babies to rich Americans.
    • In the airport, Philomena explains the whole plot of a novel to Martin, then she proposes him to read the book. He refuses politely, saying that he feels like he has already read it.
  • Film of the Book: But seriously, it's not really much like the book.
  • Fish out of Water: Philomena in Business Class and at a 5 Star Hotel. And Martin at the Harvester Pub when meeting Philomena and her daughter for the first time.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Sister Hildegard.
  • Freudian Slip: Martin, when talking about his confusing Jane Russell and Jayne Mansfield.
    They were both very big... in their careers.
  • Gay Conservative: Anthony/Michael.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: Philomena doesn't swear, with one notable exception (see below).
  • Hollywood Atheist: Martin is an atheist and he is contemptuous of Philomena's beliefs.
  • Hollywood Homely: In-Universe, discussed at the end when Philomena talks about the protagonist of her romance novel to Martin.
    Philomena: She's very plain. Pretty but plain.
    Michael: I like plain girls.
  • Hypocritical Heartwarming: Although Martin at first doesn't think highly of Philomena, he's quick to try and protect her from as much bad news as possible and gets righteously furious on her behalf when realizing the nuns lied to her.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Martin tries to be, but often finds his abrupt manner doesn't get him very far.
  • Jerkass: Martin's editor; she doesn't express much interest in the story itself, but cares about how Martin can extract as much pathos as possible from it.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Martin's arguments with Philomena about the Catholic Church aren't always conducted with great sensitivity on his part, but it's hard to say his conclusions are wrong.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Martin. He may be Brutally Honest, and he also starts to care for Philomena greatly. In the end, he is even ready to give up the idea of publishing the article.
  • Karma Houdini: Sister Hildegard has serious health problems in her old age and gets called out by Martin for her actions. But the other nuns who ran the laundries and lied to Philomena and Michael, Philomena's unseen father who abandoned and disowned her, and Martin's boss who encourages him to exploit Philomena's grief are all unpunished. However, there is the consolation that when Martin's article comes out, it will result in a public relations nightmare for the Catholic Church that would only get worse when the truth about molesting priest cover ups and the Magdalene Asylums are exposed.
  • Kind Hearted Simpleton: Martin sees Philomena this way, at least at first, but she's a great deal wiser than he gives her credit for. She has endured terrible cruelty and lifelong grief, yet says she doesn't like the word "evil," even to describe the nuns of the laundries, and is unfailingly gentle, sweet, and kind.
  • Loveable Rogue: The father of Philomena's child appears to have been this
  • Meaningful Name: Philomena is the name of the patron saint of babies and youth.
  • Minor Major Character: Anthony.
  • Misfit Mobilization Moment: Several minor ones throughout the film as the two characters warm to each other and their 'mission'. The first one being when Martin's smarmy former colleague returns to First Class on the plane and Philomena remarks to Martin that First Class doesn't necessarily mean first-class people.
  • Mistaken for Suicidal: Philomena does not answer when Martin knocks on her door in the hotel in Washington, so he is afraid that something bas happened. Finally, he enters her room and find her on the balcony, but she was not intending to commit suicide: she was just crying alone.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: Philomena, and every other woman or girl in the laundries were a victim of this kind of double standard. They are treated barbarically while the men they had sex with are rarely blamed at all.
  • Odd Couple: A great deal of the humour comes from this: Martin is an Oxford-educated journalist, while Philomena is a retired nurse who likes to read romance novels.
  • Out of Focus: Philomena's daughter takes an important role in the early scenes of the film but then isn't seen on screen again.
  • Pet the Dog: Sister Annunciata, one of the young nuns, obtains a photograph of Anthony and gives it to Philomena.
  • Precision F-Strike: Martin's exclamation of "Fucking Catholics!". And when Philomena stops at a small backwoods church to confess her sins she calls him a "Feckin' eejit!".
  • Present-Day Past: Averted. Set in the early 2000s and uses period computers, mobile phones and cars.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Philomena to Martin and Martin to Sister Hildegard.
  • Sinister Minister: Sister Hildegard is a fury-inducing example.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: From Philomena at one end to Martin at the other. The film essentially agrees in part with both of their outlooks about the world.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: Martin is used to eating in classy restaurants, to travelling business class, to staying in fancy hotels... Philomena is not and Martin makes fun of her reactions.
  • Smarter Than You Look: Philomena. During the scene where she asks Marcia if Anthony/Michael had children she makes it clear that after a few misunderstandings that she knows what Marcia meant by Michael being gay but wanted to know if her son was "bi-curious" like some of the nurses that she knew.
  • Stern Nun
  • Trailers Always Spoil: One trailer gave away the fact that Philomena's son was Michael Hess.
  • Wham Line: A rare text variant, seen as Martin successfully finds a website detailing Anthony/Michael's life:
    Michael died on August 15, 1995.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: There is one in the end. We hear that Philomena still lives in Southern England and Martin writes books about the history of Russia.