Directed by: Stephen Frears
There are some movies that make you question the basic tenants of your core philosophies. Philomena is just such a film. It is based on the 2009 investigative book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. The story focuses on the efforts of Philomena Lee (Dench), who as a teenager in the ‘50s conceived an out-of-wedlock son — something for which her Irish-Catholic community didn’t have the highest regard. Needless to say, raising a young, pregnant, single daughter proved to be too much for Philomena’s father so he (as did other fathers at the time) consigned her to the (not so) tender mercies of the nuns from Roscrea, Co. Limerick. To say that these nuns were hard-line, old-world, God is all about punishment because you are a vile sinner and deserve all the misery they can heap upon you.
Which is precisely the way you want to experience the love of the almighty.
So, yeah, this is going to turn out the way you expect, Philomena and her sister sinners were all worked hard and mad to do penance for their sins, and ultimately forced to give up their babies (who were sold to American families with the money going to the Sisters of the Abbey). Then, following church doctrine, she was forced to sign a contract that wouldn’t allow for any sort of inquiry into her son’s whereabouts. Eventually Philomena moved on with her life and started a family, then 50 years later in England she reveals to her daughter about her “sinful” past, and that she really and truly regrets what happened all those years ago. Then, Philomena meets Sixsmith (Coogan), a former BBC reporter who is looking for a new project. Eventually the pair worked out a deal for Sixsmith to help her find her long-lost son and write about it.
What they find is how the nuns treated the ‘fallen woman’ in their care and then whisk away and ‘sell’ their babies to America couples for adoption. The girls are then coerced into signing a document promising ‘Never to Seek to Know’ what the Church did with them, Philomena never saw him again. The pair track the boy to the U.S. where he was renamed Michael Hess, grew up to be a top lawyer and then a Republican politician in both the Reagan and Sr. Bush administrations. Ironically Michael was also gay and in 1980s Washington being out and proud was not an option. He not only had to conceal not only his sexuality, but, eventually, the fact that he had AIDs. This story is a heart-wrenching tale of a mother and a son, whose lives were shattered by the forces of hypocrisy on both sides of the Atlantic and of the secrets they were forced to keep. It is a truly compelling narrative of human love and loss with standout performances by both Dench and Coogan (who also wrote the screenplay).
Robert J. Sodaro has been reviewing films for some 30 years. During that time, his movie reviews and articles have appeared in numerous print publications, as well as on the web. Subscribe to receive regular articles and movie reviews.