Thursday, November 28, 2013

"Philomena": British film explores journalistic ethics, delving into the sexual mores of the past, with tragedies on two continents

The new small-looking British dramedy film “Philomena” really covers a lot of territory, and the sneak previews and screenings and comments from the film festivals really didn’t convey the reach of this film, by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”).  The film is based on the non-fiction book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith.
As the film opens, Martin (Peter Coogan(, a former foreign correspondent and British government communications director, is looking for work after being “resigned” after a complicated “9/11 email scandal” involving Jo Moore. The details are messy and are explained on Wikipedia here. The film does not explain these very well – and that would seem to be a missed opportunity to make a point about online reputation. The details, involving internal British politics, are so convoluted, however, that they would be hard to convey in a cinematic backstory.
Through social connections, Martin picks up a freelance story about an elderly Irish woman Philomena (Judy Dench) looking for her son who (born after an “accident”) was taken a half century before when she was indentured in a convent.  Sixsmith eventually traces the story to the US, and to the possibility that the Roscrea convent was making money selling babies for adoption.  Ultimately he tracks down the man, who he finds was a gay man working as a counselor in the homophobic Republican Party who died of AIDS in 1995.  There is a confrontation scene with the ex-lover Peter Olson (Peter Hermann), living well in northern Virginia.  Sixsmith learns that the man, renamed Michael Hess (Sean Mahon) had visited Ireland before his death, trying to discover his roots.  The embedded film clips show Hess as ill, with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions on his face.  His lover, however, looks well eight years later (the film is set in 2003), as if to suggest that, had he been infected, the effective modern medications (protease inhibitors) just didn’t arrive quite in time to save Michael. The film makes a political point that Reagan and the GOP inhibited AIDS funding (a point that is questionable historically) because they blamed male homosexual conduct for amplifying the argument, a common and dangerous argument from the religious right in the 1980s (it almost resulted in a very draconian anti-gay law being passed in Texas in 1983, when I was living in Dallas). (I know of several cases of male couples where one would die of AIDS and the other would survive by years, even living today.  In a few cases, the other couple never became infected, and in a few cases it seems like people did not progress or, in later years, simply responded very well to newer medications.)   
There is a scene near the end, when the film returns to the convent, where an elderly supervisory nun articulates her moralistic views about chastity and abstinence (but this was in the heterosexual world), and then the camera moves to the best visuals in the movie, a wonderful shot of the estate and cemetery after an ice storm, with stunning shimmering landscapes covered by rime ice. 
The film is shot in regular l.85:1 ratio, which allows more closeups in indoor scenes, and may make transfer to television easier. 

During the end credits, the film shows some 8mm reels from the life that Hess led, which appears to have included Civil Rights work in the deep South.
The link for the film is here. In the US, it is distributed by the Weinstein Company, and appears to be distributed also by 20th Century Fox and Magnolia.  Even relatively small films these days often use the resources of several major studios and distributors, including also BBC (for television) and Pathe.  The film was a hit at Venice and Toronto film festivals.

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