Judi Dench at an awards ceremony.
I went to see Philomena and did not expect to like the film. I certainly didn’t expect to be deeply moved. Well, I did like it and I was deeply moved. Philomena is the story of an older Irish lady embarking on her quest to find her long lost son with a down on his luck British journalist. Along the way both of the main characters learn much about each other and themselves.
The film is a bit unusual in its short hour and a half length. These days most feature films last at least two hours. Unlike many other movies, this film stays tight to the main story line. Minor characters are not developed at all and even the back stories behind the two main characters are not well fleshed out. We know that Martin Sixsmith was a journalist for the BBC who went to work in government and was forced to resign in some sort of scandal over an email he might or might not have sent. The only thing that really is clear about Martin’s circumstance is his current plight of drifting through life without much direction. He appears slightly depressed, although in the beginning of the movie his doctor tells him he’s fine and to do more running to feel better.
Long Suppressed Secret
The movie really dives into the story when Philomena discloses her deep dark secret to her daughter. She gave birth to a son on that day fifty years earlier. Her daughter happens to run into Martin at a party in which she is a server. Martin is initially uninterested in pursuing a “human interest story” because he sees that as being involved with the lowest common denominator of society.
Credit: wikipedia commons public domain - JandK87Martin becomes interested when Philomena explains how she went to an Abbey to have the baby and was forced into indentured servitude to work off her “debt” to the nuns for taking her in for the birth. She recounts how each new mother worked hard labor seven days a week and was allowed only an hour a day with her child. From time to time, well to do couples would show up and wisk off a child for adoption. Philomena’s boy was one of those. She went to the Abbey several times over the years and was always given one excuse or another why her records or her son couldn’t be found, the most recent excuse being a fire.
I found the movie particularly intriguing because of the aspect of a family secret shrouded in shame. Our family has a similar secret which my grandmother took to her grave with her. Philomena kept her secret under wraps until her son Anthony’s fiftieth birthday finally pushed her to say something. The shame of an out of wedlock birth was too much to bear when she was younger. Only the passage of time and a yearning to find out about her son brought the secret to the surface. The movie recounts her coming to grips with the secret and her forgiveness of those who wronged her by taking her son away.
I’ve always thought Judi Dench was a fine actor. I never realized how great she was until viewing this film. She is a master of her craft. You can feel her character’s mixture of faith and sadness flow from her. I developed a tremendous admiration of Philomena’s courage to confront her past and to keep her faith in the face of treachery. She was and is an amazing woman.
Steve CooganCredit: wikipedia commons public domain - Gordon Correll http://www.flickr.com/people/14277183@N05
Martin became more of a man throughout the film. At the start he was somewhat snobbish and full of himself, even though he found himself drifting for meaning. Steve Coogan likewise acts in superb fashion in order to keep pace with Ms. Dench. We don’t see much about his undoing in the political realm nor much about his family life. Nevertheless, by sticking close to the story, we see him evolve to become more understanding and accepting of Philomena and her plight. His devotion to his assignment transforms to more of a devotion to Philomena.
The characters playing present day nuns who work to preserve the secrecy of the awful truth are thought provoking. How can they meet with a mother who yearns to know about her son and lead her astray? Martin’s anger is understandable and Philomena’s apparent acceptance is puzzling. Although determined to find her son she still takes all explanations of the nuns at face value. Her faith is her bedrock yet the faith also becomes an impediment.
Some may view this as an indictment of the Catholic Church. Although the nuns running the Abbey were guilty of bad acts in their selling of young children for adoption, the faith and forgiveness of Philomena in the face of these horrible deeds is inspiring. If she can keep her faith and still forgive, then the Church does fulfill a positive purpose.
Credit: wikipedia commons public domain - Roger McLachlan http://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/1205The choice of sticking only with the main story line is an interesting aspect of the movie. We naturally are curious about other parts of the character’s stories. There is no mention of Philomena’s husband or any other children, although the end credits say the real Philomena Lee enjoys life with her children and grandchildren. Similarly, we don’t get any real information about Martin’s previous stint with the BBC nor his prior background. The director made a choice for us to want more instead of giving more to us and perhaps having us want less. I applaud the decision to stay with the main story line and leave the rest for us to find out on our own.
The movie is based on actual events and the movie notes at the end that many women and their children are still searching for each other. Destruction of the records in the Rosecrea Abbey and any other similar places makes the trail much harder to follow. Hopefully, more of the families can be reunited before it’s too late.
I recommend going to see Philomena. It’s a great movie with an inspiring story, without a lot of extra fluff. Judi Dench’s performance is Oscar worthy and Steve Coogan is great as well.
It's a Winner!!
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