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 had a lovely time and even enjoyed 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 and called her a fornicator. When she experienced a breach birth, they 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. While casting about for something honorable to do, he 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. 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 the United States. He was a successful government lawyer, who was also a homosexual, and died of AIDS 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.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.