Un-spinning a Story: Stories and Storytellers in PHILOMENA
12 January 2014
Stephen Frears’ Philomena captures the moment Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith’s (Steve Coogan) lives intersect. Fifty years after giving birth to a baby, Anthony, at Roscrea, a Catholic convent in Ireland which took in unmarried pregnant girls during the mid-twentieth century, Philomena Lee reveals the secret of her long-lost son to her grown daughter, Jane. By happenstance, Philomena’s daughter caters a party Martin Sixsmith attends, and Jane beseeches Martin to help Philomena locate Anthony. Martin, a former reporter for the BBC, feels human interest stories, like Philomena’s, are beneath him, and so he declines Jane request; however, upon further consideration, Martin, rather begrudgingly, decides to help Philomena find Anthony and write the human interest piece. Their research begins as Roscrea, but the sisters there are less than helpful, reminding Philomena she agreed to never look for Anthony. Yet, residents near Roscrea reveal to Martin the convent sold babies born there, often to Americans. With this, Martin and Philomena take their search international, a physical as well as emotional journey that finally unlocks the shocking secret of Anthony’s identity and location.
Undoubtedly, Philomena is proving itself a success with audiences and critics alike. The film is funny, yet poignant; tragic, yet hopeful; and as full of moral corruption as it is full of integrity. Interestingly, Philomena never shies away from discussing storytelling as a form of entertainment, and how stories are spun, by writers, for audiences. Also, at the start of the film, Martin is very clear about categorizing Philomena’s story as “human interest,” and that human interest stories are about (and for) “weak, ignorant-minded people.” That said, Philomena could have set itself up for failure. Audiences are not going to enjoy any story when they are consistently reminded that they are watching something fake, intentionally spun, playing on pathos, to satisfy expectations (of the weak and ignorant-minded) over truth.
Yet, Frears and company, not weak or ignorant-minded people, use their talents to help Philomena avoid this obstacle, to discuss spinning stories without making the audience feel they are caught in the spin cycle. Although the film does not shy away from the aforementioned topics, as they are significant to Martin’s characterization, as initially cynical writer, the film includes these topics and beliefs antagonistically to aid in teaching a pessimistic, scornful protagonist that his understanding of stories and storytelling is skewed. At its core, Philomena is a film about how a writer learns that great stories cannot simply be told, they must be felt. Moreover, according to one read on the film, great storytellers do not spin events in others’ lives for profit; they come to understand the stories and can only then relive them for their audience.
First, when Philomena and Martin travel to America in search of Anthony, their initial voyage to the plane itself stands out as one of the film’s first intentional statements about stories and storytelling. Through this scene, the film shows how narrow Martin’s understanding of storytelling is. The scene’s direction and tone help it communicate this statement to the audience. Martin and Philomena ride on the back of an airport transportation vehicle through the airport to their gate and, along the way, Philomena tells Martin the entire plot of a novel she has just finished. Time wise, the scene runs longer than most other scenes in the film, which makes the sequence stand out for its divergence from Frears’ established norm in Philomena. Moreover, while the film as a whole has substantial comic relief, this extended scene is entirely comedic, adding to why this scene, in the context of the entire film, stands out.
Cinematic technique and comic relief draw attention to this scene, but the fact that Philomena is why this sequence is significant. Truthfully, Philomena is not the best storyteller; she jovially reveals every secret of her book’s story to Martin, unfazed by (or, perhaps, unaware of) his lack of interest. At the end of her story, Philomena insists Martin borrow the book, which he resists, insisting, “I feel as though I’ve already read it.” At this point in the film, Martin listens to Philomena’s rambling and seems slightly regretful about his decision to travel to America with Philomena.
The Martin at the start of this film completely misses even the slightest value in Philomena’s unrefined storytelling. Even though he thinks highly of himself as a writer, his understanding of storytelling is static and egocentric. To him, Philomena is rambling. Yet, because of the cinematic attention on this scene, the audience is pushed to realize what Martin cannot see, that stories must be felt to be told authentically. Although unpolished, Philomena’s story is entertaining because she is emotionally invested in the tale she tells. Put another way, and according to one possible claim in Philomena, storytelling is not spinning; storytelling is expressing emotional understanding. At this early point in the film, Martin does not have this concept, and it takes until the film’s conclusion to finally get it.
In the end, after Philomena learns where her son actually is, and she and Martin return to Roscrea to confront the sisters, Martin crosses a line and takes Philomena’s story into his own hands. Without Philomena, he breaks into a restricted section of the convent and unabashedly challenges one the sister’s motives and actions as they regard Philomena Lee. Along with others, Philomena walks in and takes issue with Martin, reminding him, “This happened to me,” and it is not his place to involve himself.
This is the climax of the film. Not simply because it is the moment Philomena learns the truth about Anthony and faces her own antagonist, but because this is the moment in the film when the audience realizes Martin finally has what it takes to become a storyteller; although he is wrong to speak on Philomena’s behalf, he finally feels and understands this story. Up until this point, Martin was fixated on spinning Philomena’s story; after this confrontation, Martin is emotionally connected to this story; no need to spin it because now it is real to Martin.
After this confrontation, and perhaps afraid by the emotions which have overtaken him, Martin tells Philomena he will not write the story. Turning the tables, Philomena tells Martin he needs to write it. This is not because she is after the story’s attention, or even because she feels she must hold up her end of the arrangement made with Martin and his editor. Philomena encourages Martin to write the story because Martin now feels the story. What were once facts (and opinions) he planned to manipulate are now feelings and an understanding he can communicate.
The last shot of the film is Martin’s car, as he and Philomena drive away from an icy Roscrea. Through voiceover, the audience hears Philomena tell Martin she finished another book, and would he like to borrow it. Martin replies with, “Why don’t you tell me about it,” solidifying that Martin, undoubtedly, learned the value of storytelling, and that value has nothing to do with how well a storyteller refines and spins at story to appease the masses, but, instead, how the story is felt.