Director Stephen Frears’ latest feature film, Philomena, follows a woman’s search for her son, who was “sold off” by the Irish Catholic church 50 years earlier. Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the heartbreaking twists and turns of Philomena’s journey are even more jaw-dropping as we learn the story is based on the 2009 nonfiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith.
In 1950s Ireland there was only one thing more sinful than a girl having sex before marriage: Getting pregnant out of wedlock. (Never mind that it takes two to tango, but as in most patriarchal societies and predominantly Catholic countries, only girls were punished for such indiscretion.)
Philomena explores similar territory as Peter Mullan’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, which recounted the plights of three teenage girls who were sent to Magdalene Asylums (euphemistically called Magdalene Laundries). These quasi-internment camps housed “fallen” girls, sent away for shaming themselves and their families. The young women and girls (sometimes as young as 9) were forced to work in laundries or perform other physically challenging work, and often subjected to emotional abuse at the hands of the nuns who ran the homes.
Likewise in Frears’ film, young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clarke) is disowned by her family after a tryst results in pregnancy. Sent to Roscrea convent, she works in the laundries to pay for her room and board—and her sins. She and the other young mothers are allowed to see their children for an hour a day. Philomena and her son Anthony adhere to this limited schedule for nearly three years until Anthony is adopted, against her wishes, on Christmas 1955.
Nearly five decades later, the elderly Philomena (Dench) reveals the secret she’s been keeping all these years to her daughter. They reach out to Sixsmith (Coogan), a recently fired British government flack and former BBC journalist, to help Philomena search for her lost son. Sixsmith, bitter about his forced retirement, at first scoffs at the idea of taking on a “human interest” story. But the cynical, Oxbridge-educated intellectual calls his editor anyway, pitching the nuns-as-bad-guys angle. She’s interested; after all, scandal sells on both sides of the pond.
When Martin and Philomena visit Roscrea convent to inquire about adoption records, they’re stonewalled by the sisters, who tell them that most records were destroyed in a fire. Though Philomena takes the nuns at their word, Sixsmith points out that it’s strange the only paper to survive the fire was Philomena’s signed document that doesn’t allow her to ask for her son’s whereabouts. Through his political and media contacts, Martin learns that most Irish children were adopted by American families for a fee, and the search for Anthony takes them across the sea.
Although talking about “chemistry” is usually reserved for romantic onscreen relationships, it applies here in spades. Dench and Coogan create a believable rapport for their disparate characters. They play with the yin and yang expertly, and we watch as the characters both grow from their experience together in subtle, yet substantial, ways.
On the surface, Philomena seems a simple woman who loves romance novels and all-you-can eat buffets, but as deftly played by Dench, she proves no one’s fool. Her strong faith baffles, and at times infuriates, the former Catholic Martin, who acts as her un-suppressed id—especially when dealing with church officials. There are several moments in the film when Philomena leaves Martin—and the audience—absolutely dumbstruck by her capacity for forgiveness.
Coogan, who co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope, adds much-needed moments of levity and humor to a story inherently tinged with sadness. The bittersweet mystery could have easily strayed into maudlin, tabloid territory, if it solely targeted evil nuns or a Catholic Church coverup. But instead, Philomena follows the journey for the truth, raising questions about faith, infallibility and family. The steady direction by Frears, coupled with the snappy and substantive dialogue, keeps the film grounded when even the truth becomes hard to believe.
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope (based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith)
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clarke, Mare Winningham
Release Date: Nov. 22, 2013