Based on true events, Philomena covers much of the same ground paved in the earlier 2003 film The Magdalene Sisters, the story of the Magdalene convent in Ireland where young girls were essentially incarcerated for their ‘sins’ and put to work, long hours, working the laundry and unable to leave, slaves to the unrelenting and unreasonable demands of the nuns in charge. Philomena is not a copy or a remake of that earlier film, it’s the consequences, and it remains the disgrace the Catholic Church.
Based on a book called The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by ex-BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, Philomena (Judi Dench) is an elderly Irish woman who continually reflects back on the child that was snatched from her by the nuns when she was a young girl and sold overseas. Through a series of short flashbacks, we see how a young and impressionable Philomena was courted one night at a nearby traveling fun fair by a teenage boy resulting with an unwanted pregnancy.
Now, more than forty plus yeas later, the retired lady, who has lived a full life with a family of her own, continues to stare at a small black and white picture she has secretly kept with her since she was a teenager. “Who is it?” asks her daughter, Jane who catches sight of the photograph. Philomena doesn’t answer directly, but then after a pause says, “It’s his birthday. He’ll be fifty today.”
After all these years, Philomena wants to find her boy, but she needs help, which is where journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay) steps in. With his investigative skills and his somewhat belligerent manner, Martin takes on the task of helping Philomena track down the whereabouts of her boy, but it’s not easy. First, there’s the nuns at the Sisters of the Sacred Heart convent he has to face, or the “Sisters of little mercy,” as he calls them.
The remaining nuns have no records of those earlier days due to an accidental fire some years ago that burnt most of the documents, though the contract that Philomena once signed stating she basically had no claim on the child is still on file. It’s only later when Martin goes for a drink at a local pub he hears that the big fire at the convent was not an accidental fire at all – it was a series of bonfires the nuns intentionally built setting flame to all documents that would incriminate them. As Martin angrily explains to Philomena, “All the papers that would help you find your child were destroyed, but the one piece of paper designed to stop you is carefully preserved.”
Eventually their search for the boy, remembered as Anthony, takes the elderly lady and the journalist to America. It’s here, in the United States visiting for the first time that the real charm of Philomena’s innocence and refreshing honesty come to light. First, Philomena is concerned that her boy may now be obese. “Have you seen the size of the portions they serve here?” she states referring to the restaurants and the all-you-can-eat breakfast bar. Then, when enjoying the pleasures of a D.C. hotel room, she is wowed by a piece of chocolate left on her pillow by the cleaner and amused by the TV commercial promoting the pay-per-view version of comedian Martin Lawrence in the 2000 comedy Big Momma’s House. “It’s about a little black man pretending to be a fat black woman,” she tells the journalist with delight. “It looks hilarious.”
Eventually, Philomena and Martin together will uncover the truth. Yes, they find what they’re looking for, but, no, it will not be a feel-good, Hallmark moment with hugs and tears; it’s a true story and reality never is. But it is a satisfying conclusion with revelations that will take both Philomena and Martin back to where they began their search, with the nuns at the Irish convent. “What they done to you was evil,” states Philomena’s daughter. When Philomena tells Martin she wants to go to Confession, the journalist is perplexed. “They incarcerated young women against their will, put them to work and sold their babies!” he exclaims, adding that it is the Church that should be going to Confession for its sins, not Philomena.
Philomena is such an unexpected pleasure. Its power is that it immediately engages. It’s not only because of the delicately nuanced performance of Judi Dench complete with a soft, Irish accent, or the often amusing force of Steve Coogan’s quarrelsome journalist, but the overall story that plays out like a detective novel with revelations that will surprise, amuse and possibly annoy. What Philomena will discover about her son, a toddler wrenched from a teenage mother’s life by nuns who profited financially, will move you without the manipulative inducement of tears. It’s amazing that in a civilized, modern-day, western society, this was allowed to happen – let’s not kid ourselves; what the nuns did was essentially kidnapping while engaging in white slave labor, then they burned most of the evidence – but the film never overplays its hand. As directed by Stephen Frears, facts are presented in a thoughtful, evenly measured manner; the truth alone is emotionally draining without the need for hyping the moments up.
“I think of him every day,” Philomena states. “I’d like to know if Anthony ever thought of me.” By the revelations uncovered, the retiree will get her answer. Philomena is among the best of the year.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 94 Minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)