I saw the new movie Philomena last week. I was unprepared for how much this film would move me to the depths of my spirit. It is my “sleeper” film for 2013! I noted this weekend, with great joy, that it was nominated for the Golden Globe as “Best Picture.” (There are only five nominees. The Academy now has ten nominees and if Philomena is not nominated someone should investigate the process!)
Philomena is a 2013 British film based upon the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, written by Martin Sixsmith. (Martin Sixsmith was the reporter who helped Philomena search for her lost son.) The film tells the true story of Philomena Lee’s 50-year-long search. The book focuses more, as the title suggests, on the life of Michael/Anthony (Philomena’s son) after his adoption in Ireland. The film focuses more on Philomena herself yet it gives us a clear picture of what transpired in Michael/Anthony’s life over the years since he was taken from the convent in Ireland.
As the film begins Martin Sixsmith has just lost his job as a Labor government adviser. He isn’t sure whether to take up running or write a book about Russian history, his special interest. Meanwhile, Philomena Lee confides to her daughter that she had given birth to a son (in the early 1950s), but because she was not married she was forced to give him up for adoption through a Catholic covent where she lived. (As the film explains the Catholic Church played a major role in the times, which is much less true in modern Ireland.) Martin meets Philomena’s daughter at a party and hears of her search for Michael. Martin, a lapsed and unbelieving Catholic, initially scorns the whole idea of writing a human interest story but he needs the work. Further, an editor thinks there is a great story here. Martin meets Philomena and they begin their own detective work to find out what really happened to her son.
Because I do not want to give away so much of this moving story I will not develop what they discover in their search and what this discovery means. It is well done in terms of both script and filming. This story will be a major part of any full-length review and is a major part of the debate that will surround this movie. Suffice it to say some will find the film overly critical of the Catholic Church while others will celebrate the sexual revolution because of other parts of the story. You can guess from these lines what transpires but believe me you should see the film.
The film has elicited some rather stinging political and religious reactions. The producers have been attacked by conservative media. Forget the “politics” and the blistering comments of a few conservatives who think the film is anti-Catholic and secular. One response, written by the two screen writers, is well worth reading.
Philomena (who in real life is still alive) gave birth to her son Anthony at the convent in Roscrea (Ireland) in 1952. She was pregnant, out of wedlock. The practice seen in the film, about what to do to handle such a pregnancy, was common in Ireland in the 1950s. She was forced to sign away all parental rights to her son. Yet for three years Philomena cared for him as a young boy. Then one day, without warning and preparation, he was adopted and taken away. Philomena is shattered. She is required to do hard work as an indentured laundry lady to pay for her care at the convent. Philomena’s best friend at the convent had a daughter named Mary. Mary and Michael were best friends as children. A couple from Chicago came to the convent to adopt Mary but took away both children because they saw that they were inseparable.
Martin and Philomena began their search for her son by going to the convent. The nuns are polite and welcoming, but they have no information. The adoption records had been lost in a fire years earlier, so they are told. Drowning his frustration at a pub, Martin meets a young man who tells him rumors he had heard from the old-timers: the convent deliberately destroyed the records in a bonfire, and that they had sold the children to adoptive parents, mostly in the United States.
As a journalist and political adviser, one of Martin’s specialties is the United States. He has numerous contacts in America so Martin reaches out to his contacts in the US to help. Searching passport and other records, Martin finds that Philomena’s son had been adopted by Doc and Marge Hess, who renamed him Michael. He grew up to become a high-ranking official in the Reagan administration. (I will leave out much more of the story here so that you can enjoy seeing it for yourself! You can discover everything you want to know online but I want to preserve some information so you will see it on your own. It will be much more moving if you experience this story, believe me. )
The entire story ends where it begins: back at the convent in Ireland. Martin sees an elderly nun who had been around when Philomena’s son had been taken from her. He angrily confronts her but the nun is unrepentant, saying that losing her son was Philomena’s penance for her sin of fornication. Let me put this very simply. The elderly nun is the perfect picture of a self-righteous Christian who believes they have lived a moral life and is quite smug and satisfied. Say no more. And Martin is the perfect picture of a man who has no faith left and blames the [god] and church for a great deal of his loss of faith. The old nun and Martin share one thing in common–both are miserable and quite unsatisfied in their interior being.
Philomena, on the other hand, walks into the huge commotion between the old nun and Martin and responds very differently. She expresses her pain and then tells the nun that she forgives her. Martin is stunned and later asks her why she forgave the nun. Her answer moved me to tears! The gospel is portrayed in this moment like you will rarely see in a modern film that based upon a true story. I will see the film again very soon just to experience this sequence and thus try to take it in more carefully.
Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday expresses several aspects of the film well when she writes:
[T]he modest, provincial Philomena, whose steadfast faith Martin condescendingly equates with her taste for lowbrow romance novels, tends to get the last word. After delivering a flustered soliloquy on whether he believes in God, Martin turns the question to Philomena. “Do you?” he asks her. “Yes,” she says simply. (Later, when Martin refers to something as “evil,” Philomena insists that she doesn’t like that word. “No, evil’s good, story-wise,” he reassures her.)
But Hornaday, like most critics of the film, simply does not see the “gospel” in Philomena when she concludes:
If Philomena’s devotion is admirable, the blind eye she turns to the nuns who took her child is less understandable, and Martin serves as a suitably outraged audience surrogate as he reacts to an appalling revelation midway through the film.
Yet Ann Hornaday gets the theme right when she concludes:
But at its core, this clever, wrenching, profound story underscores the tenacity of faith in the face of unfathomable cruelty. Evil may be good, story-wise. But virtue, at its most tested and tempered, is even better (italics mine).
This film is, along with Twelve Years a Slave, one of the two greatest films of 2013. Forget the fluff, and all the big budget stuff, and see these two truly great and inspiring films. Your life and faith journey will be stronger for taking the time to allow these two magnificent true stories to sweep over you with cinematic power. This is what great story-telling looks like on the big screen. I long to see more films like this but the market for them is not huge so I cherish the few moments I enjoy when such a film does come along. Philomena had only earned 2.2 million dollars in its first few weeks at the box office. Compare this to the entertaining but big-budget film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which had earned 26.2 million in roughly the same time period. For the record, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is fun and entertaining and worth seeing but it is far too predictable and has a flawed story line.
The remarkable Judi Dench, now 78-years-old, plays Philomena, which is enough to have prompted me to see the film in the first place without even knowing the story. She does not disappoint and clearly earns her Golden Globe nomination for best actress this year. (I hope I can do such work when I am 78!)