This is a thoughtful, complex film with
many emotional overlays. It’s based
on a true story, which injects the screenplay with conviction and poignancy.
Judi Dench plays Philomena, now a
retired Irish nurse who had a very traumatic childhood.
She grew up in a Catholic children’s home run by nuns, who pretty
much treated the orphans as child labor, particularly in their teens.
Philomena spent her days in the laundry, a perpetual sweatshop.
When she finally had an opportunity to get out of the convent and go to
a County Fair, she was having a lovely time, even enjoying flirting with a
handsome local boy. But she was
unprepared to resist what naturally followed, and when her pregnancy could no
longer be hidden from the judgmental sisters, they scorned her with verbal
abuse; called her a fornicator, and when she was experiencing a breach birth,
refused to call in a doctor for help. Her
agony was her due penance for her carnality.
Philomena was then further punished by
being allowed to see her baby only one hour a day.
The rest of the time the sisters ran the nursery, until they were ready
to give the children away for adoption. Or,
more accurately, sell them into adoption. When
they took away her baby boy, Philomena was beyond distressed; she was
inconsolable. And she carried those
painful memories all her life, unbeknownst to the family she later raised.
In a seemingly unrelated story, Martin
Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is summarily let go from his high-powered political
job, and while casting about for something honorable to do, decides that
freelance journalism might suit him, though he’s opposed to so-called
“human interest” stories, because, he says, that’s really only a fancy
title for those who are vulnerable, weak, and pitiable—in other words,
“the little people.”
Yes, he’s an elitist, and not even an
apologetic one. But a chance meeting
results in Philomena’s plight coming to his attention, and he agrees to help
her find her long-lost son, thinking that this might be a good exposé against
the Catholic Church, an institution which he has no use for; in fact, he’s
an atheist who thinks that religion does much more harm than good.
On the surface of it, his point of view
seems completely borne out by transpiring events, as Philomena and Martin, as
very unlikely but surprisingly compatible traveling companions, are told by
the current administrators of the children’s home that previous records were
lost in a fire. But that turns out to
be a half-truth: actually, they burned
the records to avoid having to reveal any information to people just like
Philomena. But Martin is resourceful,
and through his government contacts is able to discover that despite a name
change, Philomena’s son was adopted by an American family, and grew up in
. He was a successful government
lawyer, who was also a homosexual, and died of A.I.D.S. at a young age.
Now Philomena has to suffer a different
kind of grief, but Martin is now in a righteous rage when he discovers that
Philomena’s son had tried to contact her, but was rebuffed by the orphanage,
as well, and told that all the records were lost in a fire.
Martin is furious and wants to go angrily confront the despicable
sisters of dark secrets, but Philomena is the one who not only keeps her
faith, she shows him about how to forgive. Oh,
and part of being a Christian is how you treat others, including food servers
and hotel clerks and other hard-working souls whom Martin had always
considered beneath him.
Yes, at its core, “Philomena” is a
tale of redemption, but the heroes are not the ones wearing the religious
garb. They’re the ones who show they
are Christian by their love.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St.
Stephen’s Presbyterian Church,