Biography | Drama
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
PG-13 | 98 min
It’s her son’s 50th birthday, and Philomena is thinking about him as she has done every day of his life.
So begins a beautiful film that quietly tugs at the heartstrings, opens your eyes, pulls you in, and lingers long after the credits roll.
Philomena is based on the 2009 book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, by journalist Martin Sixsmith. It tells the true story of retired nurse, Philomena Lee, and her 50-year-long attempts to find the little boy she was forced to give up for adoption in Ireland. The film stars Steve Coogan as Sixsmith and Judi Dench in the title role.
Dench gives a warm and stirring performance as Philomena. She’s a devout Irish Catholic and a perfect foil for Sixsmith whose faith has fallen by the wayside. He’s sullen, jaded, and unhappy with reason—he’s lost his job with BBC, has no sense of purpose, and can no longer afford to fly first class with his former colleagues. He can’t be bothered with Philomena’s incessant chatter about her romance novels or waitresses who interject themselves while he’s trying to have a “private conversation.” Philomena calls him rude, but she lets him live his life without lecture. She exudes goodness. You feel it in the friendly way she interacts with the hotel’s chef at breakfast and her acceptance of people and things she cannot change.
Philomena’s goodness is an ongoing theme of the movie.
In flashbacks we learn that as a young and naive teen, Philomena had a carnival tryst, became pregnant, and was banished by her family to the notorious Magdalene Laundries where unwed mothers and other fallen women were forced into hard labor as punishment for their sins.
Fast forward fifty years, Philomena sets out with Sixsmith to find her son, Anthony. She is feisty, cheerful, wonderfully open to adventure, and clearly sharper with a disarming honesty. Sixsmith needs to revive his journalism career, but isn’t all that interested in doing a human interest piece on the elderly woman.
Watching Philomena’s story unfold was like watching a flower blossom.
It’s one startling revelation after another.
To punish Philomena for her sin, the nuns had been exceedingly cruel. They allowed for a painful birth and required she give up all parental rights. They granted her only an hour a day with her son and then, one day without warning or a chance for Philomena to say goodbye, they sold the toddler to a well-to-do American couple. Through the years—all 50 of them—Philomena tried to find the boy and was told repeatedly by the nuns that they were unable to help her. With Sixsmith, she learns the unholy truth.
Yet Philomena displays no anger, no animosity nor bitterness. Where most of us would be as outraged as Sixsmith, she remains stoic and is slow to blame the nuns who mistreated her. “It’s not their fault,” she insists.
Sixsmith, on the other hand, is cynical. He angrily confronts Sister Hildegard who went out of her way to prevent Philomena from ever finding the boy. He wants Hildegard to feel some sense of remorse and shame for what she’s done. He wants vindication for Philomena, but the nun is unmoved. She considers the pain she caused Philomena to be Philomena’s penance for the sin of fornication. Furious, Sixmith tells Hildegard to apologize, but Philomena stops him. Quietly, she says to Sister Hildegard, “I forgive you.” There’s a stunned silence. “What, just like that?” Sixsmith demands, outraged. “It’s not just like that,” Philomena replies, “That was hard for me.” She tells him she doesn’t want to be like him, so full of anger all the time. “It must be exhausting,” she says.
Sixsmith may not agree with her religious devotion or her capacity to forgive, but he comes to respect and admire Philomena as much as we do.
Her resilience is inspiring. She knows that resentment, anger, and bitterness won’t change anything. What happened has happened. The past is over. The only way to have joy and peace in her life is to accept what happened, release the pain, forgive, and move on.
Philomena is looking for closure . . . and by story’s end, she finds it.
Wonderful film. Four thumbs up (mine and Tom’s).
Read more about Philomena Lee’s story: The Daily Mail.