PHILOMENA directed by Stephen Frears is a fact-based film, which on the surface might seem like a sentimental “human interest” tale, but the impact of one woman’s heartrending story and the ramifications on society and its outdated laws and customs loom much larger. Martin Sixsmith (played with a certain cynicism and dashing aplomb by Steve Coogan,) a recently unemployed BBC journalist searching around for a book topic to keep him occupied as well as warding off incipient depression, serendipitously meets the daughter of Philomena Lee who urges him to write about her mother’s secret/ silent preoccupation with finding the son that was monstrously wrested from her 50 years earlier. Sixsmith reluctantly agrees and his life is inexorably transformed when he meets Philomena (Phil) Lee, beautifully played by Judi Dench, a wonderful actor able to convey with convincing authenticity a steadfast woman of deep, devotional faith, who at the same time revels in a childlike delight and humor. The two begin a journey into a harrowing past that eventually reveals the present.
This is a movie about connections and aberrations; the ineffable bond between mother and child; the clash of cultures, religious beliefs, and individual moral convictions all played out against the background of a devious and powerful system that fosters abuse and corruption, and piously believes in the “truth” of their mission.
Philomena conceived a son 50 years earlier when she met a handsome lad at a Carnival during a moment of youthful abandon and joy; the teenage Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) is both innocent and seductive, becoming pregnant at 18 years of age - a shameful act in 1952 - whereby she is sent to live in a “home for unwed mothers” run by the nuns of the Sacred Heart Convent in Roscrea, Ireland. In this establishment we witness the cruel, manipulation of the adolescent inhabitants who are forced by the rigid, sanctimonious nuns to near servitude, signing away their rights to their offspring - with the "reward" of being able to spend one hour a day in physical contact with them. When the children become toddlers they are then “sold off” to rich Catholic American tourists. The mothers are agonizingly kept ignorant of their whereabouts. And that is the history of a painful era in Ireland between 1945-1960’s in which thousands of infants were placed in homes as “forced adoptions.”
The conflict between the Church’s teachings and the doctrinaire callousness of the nun’s brutality is starkly drawn, as is Philomena’s own essential humanity and her ability to forgive, when contrasted with Martin Sixsmith’s more pragmatic investigative instincts, and his often sardonic wry approach to the idea of theological dogma; nevertheless they make a good team. The “road trip” that the two of them undertake to find Philomena’s son, and the disclosures that are unearthed, creates an irrevocably poignant bridge between individuals of different class, education, beliefs and temperaments. PHILOMENA addresses issues that I was unaware of; concerns that need to be brought into the glare of light, so that all of us can see with greater clarity, in the hope that the exploitation of women in the name of spiritual "chastity“ is forever eliminated.