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Labour spin doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), fired after an unforgivable political blunder, is down in the dumps. Once a journalist, he vaguely considers writing a book, though scoffs when someone suggests he look for a ‘human interest story’. He looks down his nose at this kind of ‘soft’ journalism – but then, just such a story falls right into his lap.
He hears about Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a retired nurse from Ireland, who after a lifetime of silence has just told her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) about the baby boy she gave up for adoption fifty years before. A teenaged single mother, she was taken in by nuns who forcibly separated her from her son. Now all she has is a faded photograph of little Anthony, and a heavy burden of guilt and regret which her continued belief in God can’t relieve. She’s willing to share her story with Martin, if he will help her find out what happened to Anthony.
The search takes them to America, and into unfamiliar territory for both the cynical Martin and the frightened – but still faithful – Philomena.
- Did you enjoy the film, and why or why not? Which scenes or moments did you find particularly striking or memorable?
- What did you make of the two central performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan? How were these different from, and similar to, roles they have previously been known for? How do each of them go about balancing humour and drama in their performance?
- What emotional journey did Philomena take you on, and how would you describe your emotional state at the end? Did you know anything about Philomena Lee beforehand, and if so, how did your knowledge affect your experience of the film?
- We find out fairly early on in the film that Anthony – Michael Hess – has died. What makes this scene particularly painful, and how does it alter the tone of the story? What becomes the emotional focus for Philomena and Martin once a reunion is no longer on the cards?
- How, if at all, do Philomena and Martin change as people over the course of the film? What are some of the key turning points for each of them? How would you characterise their relationship, and what impact does each of them have on the other?
‘”Human interest” is a euphemism for stories about vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people.’ – Martin
- How does the film present Martin, and the world he comes from? To what extent does the film as a whole seem to uphold his views, and to what extent does it subvert them? What might be the value of vulnerability, simplicity and even ignorance, in contrast to the values of Martin’s world?
- In what ways does the film challenge and satirise conventions of journalism? Why do we want ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and straightforward conclusions in our news stories, and to what extent is this possible, or helpful?
- Are there any straightforward ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ in Philomena, and what is it about them that the film particularly upholds or condemns? What might be some of the problems with categorising a real person as a straightforward hero or villain? What new challenges are created if we get rid of these categories?
‘Who are the goodies? Who are the baddies? How does it end? It’s got to be really happy or really sad.’ – Sally (Michelle Fairley)
- Both Steve Coogan and Martin Sixsmith (the real and the fictional) find themselves telling an extremely private story about a living person. What moral responsibilities does this give them towards Philomena Lee, and the other real people in the story? How – and in your view, how well – do they go about living up to these responsibilities?
- As the full extent of the nuns’ actions was revealed, was your response closer to Martin’s or Philomena’s, and why? What consequences do you think there ought to have been for the perpetrators, and why? What would real justice look like in a situation like Philomena’s?
- What arguments does Martin offer against belief in God, and how valid do you think his points are? What enables Philomena to hold on to her faith, and do you think she was right to have done so? What view of God do the nuns have, and what role, if any, does Jesus play in the story?
‘Quid pro quo. It literally means “this for that”.’ – Martin
- How does Philomena explore and subvert the idea of ‘quid pro quo’? What is the value of justice and of righteous anger? What is the value of forgiveness and grace? Which force in your view is more powerful, and how does each shape the future?