Editor’s note: A version of this essay was originally published last weekend through Indiewire’s partnership with USA Today.
One of the significant new releases coming out this week deals with the plight of an innocent woman fighting against the restrictions of a society that has forced her to reckon with terrible circumstances.
Many moviegoers undoubtedly associate this description with “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the latest blockbuster adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ young adult science-fiction series, in which Jennifer Lawrence plays an impromptu warrior forced to battle her peers in a dystopian civilization.
However, it’s not only new adaptation to delve into the aforementioned subject matter: In “Philomena” (which opens in limited release Friday), director Stephen Frears’ chronicle of journalist Martin Sixsmith’s experience writing the non-fiction tome “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” Steve Coogan portrays Sixsmith as he uncovers the history of a woman separated from her child at an Irish convent in the 1950s.
There are no fights to the death in this tender story. Judi Dench portrays the guilt-ridden Philomena, who is haunted by the mystery of her son’s fate for decades and finally is willing to speak out about it. Nevertheless, Philomena’s courage to re-engage with the religious institution that deprived her of her offspring provides a realist alternative to the bloody exploits of “Catching Fire” star Katniss Everdeen.
On the surface, “Catching Fire” and “Philomena” exist on two wildly different planes. But when considered in light of their similar themes, the connection hints at the way compelling ideas can travel through vastly different forms of storytelling.
Co-written by Coogan and Jeff Pope, the script for “Philomena” starts at a point where both lead characters have accepted their frustrating circumstances. Sixsmith, once a successful BBC journalist before shifting into politics, was forced to resign after a private gaffe went public. Early scenes find him comically attempting to assert his intellect even as he has too much time on his hands. He tries jogging and contemplates writing a book on Russian literature, but initially won’t consider investigating Philomena’s plight when her daughter approaches him about it, turning up his nose at the prospects of a human-interest story.
Eventually, however, he’s drawn to Philomena’s soft-spoken manner and solemn gaze. She’s similarly at war with herself, first seen coming clean to her daughter about her lost half-brother on his 50th birthday, and eventually ecstatic about the possibility of tracking him down in the United States.
As the duo follows the clues to the upbringing her son received from American foster parents, they eventually become aware of a complex network of events that preceded the onscreen circumstances, to the point where “Philomena” eventually turns into a thoughtful treatise on the way the past has the power to dictate our actions and feelings in the present.
As “The Hunger Games” franchise barrels forward, it invokes similar ideas on an admittedly louder, flashier scale. Much happened before Katniss (Lawrence) became the leading warrior of a twisted, lethal competition that forces teens to kill each other, and the series’ mythology gradually reveals how the dark scenario came together in the first place. The latest installment is an unquestionably tense return to the grim setting of the first movie, with a fair share of slickly devised action sequences, that raises the stakes with the prospects of a greater rebellion. But it’s also clearly one piece of a larger equation, and inherently incomplete as a result — the best moment arrives when it sets the stage for the next sequel.
Still, the ideas remain potent throughout: Katniss and her fellow survivors are victims of a system assembled without their consent that bears down on them at every moment, but all they can do is keep moving ahead. And that’s also the case for Philomena, a religious woman aware that her child’s birth out of wedlock led to her situation, even though she never rejected him. Frears’ movie capably finds a balance in her willingness to accept her circumstances while experiencing a deep-seated anger for a situation she can only resolve by confronting it head-on.
There’s a reason for this unlikely connection. “Catching Fire” is unquestionably a Hollywood product that has been chiefly designed to rake in untold millions of dollars worldwide, following in the path of its predecessor. “Philomena” is a potential Oscar contender directed by a respected British filmmaker. Yet both movies have garnered acclaim for achieving entertainment value while dealing with bleak situations. Their characters’ willingness to push forward against seemingly impossible odds results in engaging survival tales. The plight of the beleaguered hero has offered enticing possibilities ever since Homer’s “The Odyssey,” so it’s no surprise that its particular incarnations in these new releases prove the scenario has timeless allure.
However, if one were to single out the movie that grapples best with sophisticated problems, “Philomena” would have to win out. It’s not a “Hunger Games”-level competition here, but “Catching Fire” thrills more than it provokes, and “Philomena” remains pensive throughout. Of course, they’re blatantly pitched at audiences with different sensibilities. But no matter which one you choose to see, you’re bound to have a lot to debate afterward. So why not make it a double bill?