The story of a woman who is on a search to find her son who was taken away from her many years ago is a beautiful, heart-wrenching, tale of woe, hope, joy, forgiveness, loss, sadness, discovery, regret, callousness, compassion, and everything in between. It is not any particular one thing to be nailed down, as the layers of Philomena, based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a true story by journalist Martin Sixsmith about this woman’s 50-year search, continue to unveil themselves long after one views the film. It’s a story not easily forgotten once it enters and captures one’s imagination.
In the 1950s, Philomena Lee has a love affair with a man and has a child out of wedlock. Her family disowns her, and she and her baby are sent to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea in Ireland. She’s forced to work in the laundry for several years to work off her “debt” to them for taking her in. The nuns sell her baby (and other babies of women and girls in similar situations) to American parents who come to adopt them (for a price) and take them away with no choice of the babies’ mother’s intentions taken into consideration at all. The scene, however brief, where they take Philomena’s infant son, Anthony, away from her forever is truly horrific to behold.
Anthony goes on to live his life in America with his adoptive parents. He is renamed Michael Hess. He becomes successful in politics as a lawyer, and works under the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. He had what was revealed to be quite a full and fulfilled life, with his partner, despite the mental and emotional pain of being in the closet professionally and also physically in pain later in life, after having contracted AIDS (he was gay, a fact that when revealed to Philomena in her search, she remained wholly unsurprised about, as she felt she knew all along, and cared not at all one way or the other, as it ought to be; her reaction of love for and acceptance of her son was a subtle, beautiful moment to behold on screen). Unbeknownst to his birth mother, he always had a fond place in his heart for her and his home country, and he attempted to find her in traveling to Ireland before he grew too sickly, but was not directed to her in his pursuit when he inquired with the nuns at Sean Ross Abbey. They told him records of Philomena’s whereabouts were either destroyed in a fire or otherwise unknown—the same lie they told her when she sought their aid in finding him.
So firm is the mislead belief of some of those nuns, one all but entirely sinister Sr. Hildegard (Barbara Jefford) in particular, and stance to keep up the idea of “rightful” punishment for these girls, that even after all the years, that character remained steadfast in her foolhardy belief, to the bitter end, despite Philomena’s loving forgiveness and attempt only to find her son and the truth about his life, rather than disparage the nuns or build hate or resentment in her heart as anyone would believe her justified to have done.
There are different ways this story could have been told. It could have been an all out reproof of the duplicitous and deceiving nature of the actions on behalf of some of the nuns in this woman’s story. It could have been a disparaging tale of the evils of the Catholic Church, the secrets and lies and misdeeds and coverups. It could have been a vilifying condemnation of anyone and everyone involved. It could have been a soft, lighter fare that sugarcoated the tragedies this woman underwent. Or it could have been a straightforward documentary about her experience, simply a re-telling of the events. Or it could altogether have been something else.
What it is, however, is a very artful and beautiful telling of her story in a way that’s at times bringing the audience to tears and at other times quite hilarious. Through a combination of excellent pacing, the finest acting by consummate professionals, and the adventurous narrative of discovery through the lens of an affable, ordinary, kind Irish woman, the film is a truly a treat to enjoy.
Dame Judi Dench has given so many fantastic performances throughout her long and illustrious career, that it would truly be difficult to single out any one in particular above all the rest. She is an actress of the finest caliber, and she rightfully gains acclaim time after time for her work because she is entirely deserving. Her performance here as Philomena Lee is no exception to this career of brilliance. Oftentimes in films it can be hard when someone of such status and level of fame plays a character who is so ordinary, so “one of us” common people, because the image of what the public sees or more to the point thinks of that person overshadows who they are purporting themselves to be in the role on screen in which we’re finding them. However, so keen is Dench’s portrayal, that not for a moment does this thought cross the mind of the viewer. She plays the sadness with her whole heart, the humor with her most genuine playfulness. It’s not at all difficult to fall in love with Dench’s Philomena Lee—it is hard to believe this is the same woman from Notes on a Scandal!—But thus is the level of talent at play!
Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who decides to go on this journey with Philomena, and to tell her story, is played by Steve Coogan. Coogan has had an interesting career, with a keen sense of humor like in films such as The Trip, or playing total cads like in Our Idiot Brother or What Maisie Knew. Here in this story, we see a very fleshed out person who starts off the story sort of dismissive of Philomena’s tale, thinking human interest stories like it are not something worth his time. But in finding out more, he finds that it’s something he simply cannot resist. And even though this is Philomena’s story, Coogan’s Martin is a very avid performance of a sidekick type of person; he also very much engages the audience’s emotions at times where often certain types of people not altogether as forgiving as Philomena would have behaved or thought differently than she did. His presence is a balancing force on the story, and it aids well in its telling.
Philomena is a lovely film, and it’s an important story to be told. What those nuns did to her and many others can never be forgotten. But the dynamic manner of Philomena’s approach as one not purely of revenge or malice, is a touching portrayal of forgiveness and acceptance and remembrance, and it stays with you long after the credits roll.