Philomena is a powerful and disturbing film that makes one angry, sad, and astounded at some of the things professing Christians have done to innocent people throughout history in the name of God.
Starring one of my favorite actresses, Judi Dench, the story is based on a true case of an unmarried Irish girl in the early 50s whose baby is sold into adoption against her will. Not uncommon in that day, unwed teens who found themselves in the “family way” were shuttled off to a convent where they worked as sweatshop slaves (in this case, as laundresses) to help pay for their convalescence. Fear of societal reprisals and damnation to Hell by the Catholic Church were enough to convince these girls to sign away their children in exchange for a life of secrecy and sins figuratively swept under the rug. The girls were allowed to see their children only one hour out of the day for the first few years of their lives, which was a bittersweet torture for those who survived. Many of them did not live through childbirth, and their babies often died from numerous afflictions. For those who did make it through, the inevitable was awaiting them, ready to strike unawares. While not openly discussed, it was known that one day a shiny motorcar driven by a wealthy couple would arrive at the convent unannounced, whisking their precious child away to some far off place. With no good-bye and no opportunity to learn about the families who would adopt their babies, the girls were left to emotionally rot in their misery, deemed by the established church as a proper atonement for their sins.
This is exactly what happened to the heroine of this movie, Philomena. Her adorable little boy, Anthony, was taken from her when she was just a girl and he a small toddler. Fortunately, a friendly nun pilfered a photograph of Anthony which Philomena kept in her possession for many years. Unbeknownst to anyone, she would often retrieve the picture from its secret hiding place and gaze at the image of the little son who she loved, still holding out hope that they would one day be reunited.
This is where the movie opens—with Philomena living as an elderly widow and mother of a grown daughter, Jane, who cares for her in her old age. Time is slipping away, and Philomena knows she must take action now to discover the whereabouts of her missing child. She shares the picture of Anthony with Jane, and the hunt is on to discover what happened to him.
Parallel to Philomena’s story, is the subplot of a down-and-out, high-profile political columnist, Martin Sixsmith (played wonderfully by Steve Coogan who also co-wrote the script), looking for an opportunity to get himself back into the journalism game. He meets Jane at a cocktail party and agrees to help discover Anthony’s whereabouts in exchange for a juicy story. Philomena accepts his terms, and the film quickly switches to a fun buddy movie where two unlikely Brits go on a real-life scavenger hunt to unravel this mystery. They start out at the convent, located in a spooky, wooded setting in Ireland, where they are told that all records of adoptions were destroyed in a fire. But Martin will not be swayed. When probed, the nuns give cryptic answers, refusing to let him speak to the elderly sisters who would have first-hand knowledge of the adoptions. That and a mass, overgrown graveyard filled with tombstones of young girls and their babies are enough to convince him that they are not getting the truth. Sure enough, a quick stop at the local pub and a brief discussion with the bartender and waitress reveal that almost all of the babies ended up in the US.
The beauty of Philomena is the combination of tragedy mixed with the humor of a quirky matriarch and a witty journalist maneuvering a sleuthing expedition on foreign soil. In particular, the nuances of American culture provide for a lot of laughs, such as our decadent, bacon, egg, and waffle breakfasts where portion sizes have no limits. Philomena’s fascination with an all-you-can-eat breakfast bar is as exciting to her (and many Brits based on my experience) as partaking in any other majestic tourist attraction in the US. She is experiencing a new and exciting world, a world that is the home of her long, lost son.
Martin, on the other hand, could care less, being solely interested in securing a compelling story. Where Philomena is hopeful, he is cynical, where she has faith, he is riddled with doubt, where she is forgiving, he is bitter and angry. Their differences in philosophy pose the theme of the movie: how can a person possibly forgive another for the horrible wrongs done to him or her?
** SPOILER ALERT **
Very early in the film, the viewer gets the sense that Philomena is doomed to receive an unfavorable outcome. Yes, after a few phone calls to the embassy and a bit of searching on the Internet, Anthony’s identity is discovered, but it comes with great grief. It turns out that he is really Michael Hess, a prominent and influential lawyer during the Reagan and Bush administrations, who died of AIDS. When Martin tries to speak with Michael’s partner and gather more information, he is met with a cold shoulder and slammed doors until Philomena eventually warms his heart. At this point, the house of cards begins to crumble and the truth of the convent’s involvement in the black-market adoption racket is made clear. How heartbreaking! While Philomena longed to be reunited with her son, she has to settle for knowing that he longed to know her too—even going so far as to travel to Ireland on several occasions to discover her identity before he passed away. Like Martin and Philomena, his inquiries into his adoption were met with forgetful nuns, supposed destroyed documents, and faded memories that could not be triggered for a dying man aching to be reunited with his birth mother. Tragic!
If you are anything like me, your blood may be boiling right now—which is the exact reaction from Martin. Eventually, the road to truth leads to one old, decrepit nun who still resides at the convent. Most of us would never consider confronting an 80-year-old pious woman (much less a Catholic nun) with hell-fire and damnation on her tongue, but Martin has no problem accusing her of acting in direct contradiction to Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, it does sometimes take a nonbeliever to confront our wrong theology before we can see the error of our ways. But she will not relent at his condemnation and persists in justifying her actions, as to be expected. While Philomena graciously forgives, Martin stews in anger.
This may seems like a depressing tale, but the character arcs made by both Philomena and Martin are intriguing. I especially liked how her quiet faith and seemingly impossible love for her wrong-doers has a profound effect on Martin. It is an excellent example of how our witness as believers has more power than carefully crafted judgmental sermons—which don’t really work in bringing about true repentance. In this movie, Martin’s repentance and Philomena’s restoration come through the journey of seeking the truth, through questioning and exploring, through observing faith in others, and through coming to terms with the past and moving forward. And out of that, Philomena experiences a glorious time with a man (Martin), who is not her son, but who could very well have been.
Through this journey, their unique relationship becomes as strong as some mother/son bonds. A lesson to all of us—sometimes the Lord gives us the desires of our heart, but in ways very different from what we can imagine.