The premise of Philomena may make many people nervous about seeing it. The questions before watching it will be “Will it be too disturbing?” or “Will the Catholic Church get knocked on screen again?” There’s only one way to find out.
The film begins in 1951 with a teenage Philomena Lee. She meets a young boy at a town fair whom she completely falls for that one day. Fast forward to 2004. Martin Sixsmith is an unemployed journalist since the Labour Party, the party he works as a government advisor, is beset by scandal. He goes to a party and meets the daughter of Philomena Lee who encourages him to write a story about her mother who was forced to give up her baby boy Anthony more than 50 years ago. Martin is uninterested in writing a human interest story and is more intent on writing a book on Russian history. However it’s after he meets Philomena and hears her story about how it all happened that he changes his mind and investigates further.
Once she was pregnant, she was sent by her father to Sean Ross Abbey, a mother-and-baby home that young unwed pregnant girls were sent to. It was terrible to live there while under the orders of the strict Sister Hildegarde, especially if she was assigned to do the laundries for four year to cover her stay. Nevertheless she was able to see her baby Anthony whom grew attached to her friend’s girl Mary. Then one day Philomena saw Mary and Anthony adopted out of the house. All Philomena could do was watch in heartbreak 30 feet away as her infant son was taken away.
Philomena had tried for years to find out what happened to her son by visiting the convent to no avail. Martin goes with Philomena to the convent only to hear from the nuns the records were lost in a fire years earlier. It’s over at the pub they hear from locals that the records were purposely destroyed in a fire and the children were sold to rich Americans. It’s after Martin’s searches in Ireland coming to a dead end that he decides on an arduous task. He decides to get the answers by visiting the United States and having Philomena accompany him.
Upon arrival in the United States, he learns through various search sites that Anthony and Mary were adopted by Doc and Marge Hess who renamed him Michael. Michael grew up to be a lawyer and a senior official to the Republic Party during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. He also learns news of heartbreak. Michael died in 1995 at the age of 43. The news naturally breaks Philomena’s heart but soon she wants to meet with people who knew Michael.
She meets one colleague and learns Michael was gay and died of AIDS. She meets up with Mary who grew up with Michael and eventually became a mother. Mary reveals Michael had a boyfriend named Pete Olsson. Pete is unwilling to cooperate despite Martin’s please but it’s not until Philomena pleads face to face with Pete that he complies. The visit with Pete is warm as he tells her of Michael’s childhood and even shows home videos. It’s when Philomena sees a video of Michael at the Sean Ross Abbey that she learns Michael tried looking for her while he was dying. She also learns he was buried over at the Abbey.
It’s then when Martin and Philomena return to the Abbey where it all started. It’s there where Martin can confront Sister Hildegard for being strict on the girls and being deceptive to both Philomena and Michael, whom she told Michael he was abandoned and they lost contact with the mother. Hildegard is unrepentant but surprisingly Philomena approaches her and forgives her. It’s right at Michael’s grave that she can finally meet the son she’s always looked for and finally make peace with her past.
The best quality of the movie is its unpredictability for those who’ve never learned the story. There may be some who have already learned the story of Philomena Lee but most who haven’t. If you don’t, then this movie will surprise you in many areas. It’s not just about Philomena’s search but learning of her son and what happened in the end. The film is full of moments. Moments of happiness, moments of tension, moments of relief, moments of surprise, moments of sadness and moments of humor. The film shows that the trip Philomena went on was not just about leaning about what came of her son but also her own personal journey of healing. A healing that needed to happen and occurred in unexpected ways.
Another great quality is the portrayal of the characters themselves. Philomena comes across as a very likeable and charming woman. Nevertheless one would question how smart she is at times and even question her faith if it’s just routine or even strong. Philomena is seen as simple and sometimes blames herself for a lot of wrongs in her life. However she comes across at the end as a stronger person than one would originally think. The biggest surprise is it would be Martin who most seems to have problems and issues while Philomena, who is the one who actually endured trauma, who still smiles at life in the end despite the harshness she went through.
Martin himself comes across as your typical egotistical journalist who appears to want to destroy the Catholic Church with his pen but somehow has a softening of heart once Philomena comes into his life. He will first make one wonder what his true intentions of helping Philomena learn of her son is: to really help Philomena or to get a great story published. In the end, he comes off as rather likeable for a journalist. Proof that even a journalist can have a heart!
I know there may be some Catholic readers that may be hesitant about seeing this film and the way the Catholic Church is portrayed. Yes, it’s surprising that Catholics would be more concerned about their depiction of the Church in a film that’s not by Martin Scorsese than whether Scorsese’s latest has another slamming of the Catholic Church in his latest. Even I myself was a bit concerned about seeing this as I saw The Magdalene Sisters ten years ago and it really was a nasty depiction of nuns and priests as well as a harsh but true look at the abuse the girls received. Philomena doesn’t show the girls in the laundries suffering abuse. It shows then doing the laundry but it does show the heartbreak of a teenage Philomena as she sees Anthony taken away from a distant window. It also shows Sister Hildegard to be unapologetic for all she’s done, not even for the girls that died during childbirth.
Actually in retrospect, I think it makes the Catholic Church look like the bad guy while the Catholic faith comes across as a positive thing in the end. One will first think of Philomena’s Catholic faith as something too ritualistic or forced upon her and even prone to break at one point but one will see in the end that it’s her faith that helps her through her hard times. In fact Philomena’s response to why she forgives Sister Hildegard in from of Martin will astonish the audience and will surprise many about how forgiveness is actually a form of personal strength. As for The Wolf Of Wall Street, Catholics should relax as the most there is in it is a joke about nuns which is the tamest taunting of the Catholic church I’ve seen is a Scorsese movie in years. I feel Philomena’s story of her search is an uplifting story of hurt and eventual healing.
Without a doubt, the standout of the film is the performance of Judi Dench. Judi is one of those actresses who really knows how to excel with age. I may have seen better acting performances from her but her portrayal of Philomena was excellent in showing the many dimensions of Philomena Lee as well as adding a charm to her. Steve Coogan was also very good in what I feel to be the best acting I’ve seen from him. His role as Martin didn’t have the same dimension as Philomena but it was a very good performance. Coogan also did a very good job of scriptwriting with Jeff Pope. The story keeps one interested especially for those who don’t know the story of Philomena Lee. Stephen Frears may not as done as spectacular job in directing as Judi did in acting and as Jeff and Steve did in writing but it is worthy of respect. It may not be as great as his Oscar-nominated directing in The Queen but it’s still a very good job. Finally, Alexandre Desplat does it again in making the film with his score composition.
Philomena may first appear like a harsh movie about a woman hurt by her past and finally looking for answers. In the end it turns out to be more bittersweet than harsh and will leave one feeling Philomena did win in the end.