I am a story/career consultant. I analyze story for a living. It is very rare that I come across one that is perfectly structured. I feel that the last film that fell into this realm for me was The King’s Speech. I am always on a quest to understand how story can be structured in a way that makes us feel the content, the message and the pursuit in the strongest way possible. I found this in the brilliant story of Philamena. Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope wrote it based on the book by Martin Sixsmith. This movie is what strong storytelling is all about.
This is a spoiler alert: Philomena is about a woman facing the shame of a choice that was made 50 years earlier. I will be going through the set up in Act I of the story so that you can see what led to it being crafted so perfectly.
It begins when Philomena hears in church, “You are the cause of your shame. You and your own indecency.” Then, they show flashbacks of a Young Philomena during the trigger moment, when she meets John. This moment would later lead to the choice. We see the symbolism of an apple with regards to the forbidden fruit.
When we meet Martin who is set up on page 3, he is at the doctor’s office. We learn that he lost his job and he is in search of a way to process the change. This creates empathy. His doctor suggests that he try running.
We see more flashbacks of Young Philomena with John. In the present, Philomena tells her daughter, Jane that today would have been Anthony’s 50th Birthday. Jane doesn’t know what she is talking about. She shows her a picture of when Anthony was a baby. This sets up the “why now” in regards to why we are entering the story when we are.
In the inciting incident from the flashback, we see Philomena when she is pregnant and talking with Mother Barbara. Mother Barbara asks her if she took her knickers down for him. She says, “He got an awful lot for a toffee apple.” She asks about Philomena’s mother. One of the other nuns says that she died ten years earlier. This builds on the empathy that we feel for Philomena. She was left motherless at a young age. So, when she gives birth to a child as an unwed mother, she has to make a choice of what to do that will be for the betterment of her child.
In the present, Philomena’s daughter, Jane, meets Martin at a party. She hears that he lost his job and that at one point he was a journalist. She tells him that she knows a story about a woman who had a baby when she was a teenager and kept it a secret. The nuns took the baby away from her and made her have it adopted and she’s kept it a secret for all of these years. Jane tells Martin that the story is about her mother. She asks him if he’d want to do a story on this.
This is the trigger that brings the two worlds of Philomena and Martin together. Both have gone through loss. Both are on a quest for meaning. I think it’s fascinating that shame is what drives Philomena; yet, through the story, the question of who should be feeling this is debated.
The trigger incident from the past was the choice that was made. The trigger incident in the present had to do with the sequence of when Philomena hears about “shame” in church and the fact that it is her adopted son, Anthony’s, 50th Birthday. The trigger incident is continued with the moment when Jane runs into Martin, a journalist, at a party right after he lost his job and asks him if he wants to cover this story.
The dilemma for Philomena is that if she doesn’t find out what happened to her son, she will never know the answer of whether she made the right choice or not. The dilemma for Martin is that he has no job and he is given the opportunity to write a story of human interest that could bring him more opportunity, which could also help in processing his own loss.
The pursuit has to do with getting the story for Martin. For Philomena, it is about finding out what happened to Anthony. The obstacles have to do with getting information from the nuns, uncovering a secret that they were keeping, discovering what really happened to young unwed mothers at the Abbey, finding people who knew Anthony and could share the truth.
The part of the story that mesmerized me was the idea of who really should be feeling shame from the choice that was made. I found the story to be so powerful. The movie was phenomenal. The script is simply brilliant.