Faith & Film: Philomena

Philomena recounts a true story of a woman’s search for the child she gave up for adoption 50 years earlier. The movie is powerful and disturbing; I can’t get it out of my head.

In the early 1950s, an unmarried young Irish woman named Philomena Lee became pregnant. In disgrace, Philomena’s father sent her to a convent of nuns to have the child. Young women who could not afford the fee for this service were required to stay a period of time to “work off” their debt to the sisters. The children were kept in the convent and the mothers had limited contact with them. One day, Philomena watches in horror as her son is taken away by a wealthy couple from America, along with another child at the convent.

Philomena lived with the secret for 50 years. On her child’s 50th birthday, she decides to find out what happened to her child. Through a chance encounter with her daughter, Philomena meets Martin Sixsmith, an unemployed journalist, who reluctantly agrees to assist Philomena with her search. Martin usually does not write “human interest” stories, but he needs the money.

Martin and Philomena go to the convent, where they are told that all records of the adoptions were destroyed in a fire. Therefore the sisters are not able to assist them. Using his own contacts in America, Martin finds a lead in Washington, D.C. He and Philomena fly to the United States to follow up on the lead.

Martin and Philomena have very different personalities. Martin, who was baptized Catholic, now claims that he does not believe in God. He is intelligent, but also cynical and arrogant. On the other hand, Philomena continues to practice her faith, despite all that has happened. She is trusting, loves people, and enjoys reading romance novels. Yet Philomena carries with her a deep sense of sadness and loss.

I expected Philomena to be a sweet movie in which the two main characters become friends and all things turn out well in the end. What I found was a much deeper and darker movie. Philomena and Martin’s search leads them back from America to Ireland and a bitter truth. Philomena finds that she has been consistently lied to and misled. Yet, in all of this, she is able to forgive and maintain her faith.

The great British actress Judi Dench plays Philomena. She gives a remarkable performance that will surely be recognized in award season. With just a look, Dench conveys the hurt that Philomena carries. Philomena also has an unexpected determination to discover the truth. At first, Martin is condescending toward Philomena’s unsophisticated, kindly nature. During the course of the film, he finds that she’s nobody’s fool.

Steve Coogan plays Martin, and also co-wrote the screenplay, based on Sixsmith’s book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” Coogan is good, but this is clearly Dench’s movie.

Some have alleged that Philomena is anti-Catholic. And perhaps there is an element of truth in the allegation. It certainly does not show the Church in a positive light. For me, the most disturbing aspect of the film is not the events of the past, but the fact that there was a pattern of deliberate deception that continued into the 21st century. Not having read the book, or been more familiar with the case, I can only accept the facts as true. If so, they are despicable. The Church has had to face up to some sad truths in recent years. The story of Philomena Lee is one of the saddest.

Veteran director Stephen Frears (whose credits include “Dangerous Liaisons” and “The Queen”) does a good job of telling Philomena’s story. As he did with “The Queen,” he tells an intimate story and conveys its wider repercussions. Frears uses home movies effectively throughout to tell the story. I presume these are actual home movies of Michael, the name given to Philomena’s son by his adopted parents.

I recommend “Philomena” for its drama and great performance from Dench. I warn those Dominicans and others who read this review that they may find the movie disturbing. Ultimately, however, this is a story of hope. Despite everything, Philomena holds onto her faith and is able to forgive. I hope I could have done the same.

Tom Condon, OP