Philomena is based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith. It tells the story of how the title character tried to find a son that had been essentially stolen from her when she was young. Sixsmith helped her find out what happened to the son and wrote the book on both these people and his experiences. He is played by Steve Coogan in the film. Coogan also co-adapted the screenplay and earned an Oscar nomination for that. Playing Philomena is Judi Dench and she earned yet another Oscar nomination, this time for Best Actress. The film itself is nominated for Best Picture. Director Stephen Frears, who had worked with Dench previously in Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005), didn’t receive a Best Director nomination, though. The movie is quite harrowing in places and if you don’t get angry at some point during the film you must be one very jaded person. Philomena, quite frankly, caught me by surprise.
While watching 12 Years a Slave, another Best Picture nominee based on a true account, I knew much of what I was going to see. I was expecting to see slavery, beatings, and mothers being separated from their children. That didn’t make those scenes any easier to watch, but they were something I could anticipate and brace for. With Philomena, a story about an Irish woman searching for her long lost son, I was not expecting them at all. Instead I encountered a film with almost as much evil displayed in it as 12 Years a Slave, up to and including children being sold and people being kept essentially as slaves.
Around 1950 Philomena Lee got pregnant while she was young and unmarried. She didn’t even know what pregnancy was because her mother had died when she was young and her father had placed her with nuns in an Irish abbey. The nuns made sure she knew she was a sinner and “allowed” her to stay with them while the pregnancy ran its course. They did horrible things to her while she was pregnant and when it came time to give birth, they refused to go get a doctor even though the baby was breached. They felt that this was a fitting punishment for her sin of being an unwed mother and if she died during birth, well that was God’s final judgment.
As it turns out both Philomena and her son survived, although many others did not. The abbey has a cemetery out back with dozens of mothers and children who died there during childbirth. Philomena and other young women like her then entered into an “agreement” with the abbey that in return for being allowed to stay there with their children they would work, unpaid, seven days a week, all but one hour a day. That one hour they were allowed to spend with their children. Unfortunately, that agreement also stipulated that the mothers had no rights if the abbey wanted to “give the children up for adoption”. This happens to Philomena when her son is three years old.
In shame she keeps this a secret for 50 years, finally telling her daughter late in life. The daughter contacts Sixsmith and he agrees to help Philomena with the search in return for being able to do a story on her. They try going to the abbey, but are told that most of their records “were destroyed in the fire” so they can’t tell her who adopted her son. They do have one piece of paper, though – the one Philomena signed saying she had no rights. As Sixsmith observes, “Isn’t it an amazing coincidence that all evidence of your son was destroyed in a fire, yet the one document saying you have no rights was perfectly preserved.”
He soon finds out that “the fire” wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t even a building. It was a bonfire the nuns built out back and they burned thousands of records in it. Anything that would help the mothers connect with their children was destroyed. And it gets worse. Sixsmith finds out that these “adoptions” were actually sales. The nuns were literally selling the babies to rich Americans, all while telling the mothers they were horrible sinners and that they should be glad they were even allowed to see their children for one hour a day.
Sixsmith and Philomena travel to
America to continue the
search. What they find includes the fact
that the nuns at that abbey were even more evil than they already knew, and
that they went to incredible lengths to continue to punish Philomena for her
As you can tell, if you are a devout Catholic this will probably not be a very enjoyable movie for you. It does not damn Catholicism as a whole, but it definitely damns the nuns at that abbey – and it does it by simply telling the truth that was hidden for so many years. The MPAA includes both official and unofficial representatives of the Catholic Church. They originally rated this film R for language (see my prior review for
for something similar.) There’s no
“language” in it. The word “feck” is
said by Philomena a few times. It’s an
Irish way of uttering the F-bomb without actually saying it. An appeal was made, and appeals are heard not
by the MPAA, but by industry bigwigs.
They immediately re-rated this film PG-13, thus defeating the MPAA’s
attempt to limit how many showings it could have and where it would be
The thing is, the two main characters balance each other out. Sixsmith represents the audience as he gets angrier and angrier the more he finds out. Philomena is always quick to forgive the nuns or to excuse them for their horrible actions. She never loses her faith and she shows what being a true Christian is about. The real Philomena Lee did lose her faith after the nuns turned her into a de facto slave and sold her child away from her. The film also takes liberties by having Philomena accompany Sixsmith to
America. In real life her daughter had already tracked
down a name in the U.S.
and only Sixsmith went to conduct the search.
When you’ve got Judi Dench in your film as the title character, though,
you’re not going to sideline her after only half the film.
The movie Philomena is a lot harder hitting than I expected. It does have the occasional amusing moments, especially with the character Philomena’s utterances as she experiences many new things. It is still mostly a drama, though. The actress who plays the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) does a good job and makes several scenes quite moving. Unless you are a devout Catholic and you think it would bother you, I highly recommend this film.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars