I have read accounts that Philomena, the fact-based film on the story of Philomena Lee, is anti-Catholic. I am not Catholic, but having seen Philomena, the film certainly is extremely harsh against the nuns who kept Philomena and her son separated for more than fifty years and went out of their way to stop any reunion. However, the film condemns those who were directly involved. Philomena also shows the present-day nuns quite compassionate and regretful of the wrong done to Mrs. Lee, and it shows its atheist co-lead to be almost as bad as those who follow the letter but not the spirit of The Word. Philomena is a tender, moving, hilarious story of a sweet woman who deserved so much better than what she got but who despite the wrongs done still holds on to the faith that some of its practitioners used to shame and torture her.
When she was a young girl, Irish girl Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) had a child out-of-wedlock. To cover the shame of this act, she was sent to Sean Ross Abbey to give birth. After she and her son survive a breached birth, she must stay there four years to work off her debt. The Abbey is filled with other young girls who got into trouble, and while Philomena finds working the laundry room hard (as well as the strictness of the sisters difficult save for one kind nun who sneaked a photo of her son and gave it to her), she does enjoy the one hour she and the other girls are allowed to be with their children. Alarming news comes her way: the children of the Abbey are basically being bought and sold, and her Anthony has been taken. She witnesses him and a little girl Anthony had bonded with spirited away, but she cannot stop it. Philomena has kept her lost child secret for fifty years, until she tells her daughter in the hopes of finding Anthony.
Into this comes Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced former Labour advisor forced out of government. He has decided to write a book on Russian history (which even he finds a boring prospect), until a chance meeting with Philomena's daughter. She asks that, being a former BBC reporter (what do you know: a liberal working in the press! Will wonders never cease?) if he could help. Sixsmith sneers at the 'human interest' story, but the intellectual atheist is persuaded to help, partially for a chance for work, partially for a chance to attack the Catholic Church through the sins it committed (and thus showing how religion, or faith, in particular the Church and Christianity in general is abhorrent). Philomena, a good-hearted woman who has remained a faithful Catholic and a somewhat naïve and endearing person with an open nature, is thrilled to have him help (though not entirely pleased at his anti-Catholic/Christian/religious attitude).
The convent says the records were all burned in a fire (a convenient one, Sixsmith holds), but local gossip of when actress Jane Russell (whose picture Sixsmith sees in the convent, her voluptuous presence at odds with the devout surroundings) came to town to adopt a child puts Sixsmith on a lucky break. The children, including Philomena, were sold to Americans. With that, Philomena, with her favorite romance novels in tow, takes her first flight to the New World to find her son.
Through some contacts from his BBC days Sixsmith is able to track down the lost child. Philomena is delighted by everything: mints on pillows, a breakfast buffet, and even Mexicans serving at the hotel. She is so enthralled by all these experiences, and never fails to be kind and loving to all the people she meets, even when Sixsmith is curt to everyone. In a strange coincidence, Sixsmith finds that he had met Philomena's son, renamed Michael Hess, briefly when Martin covered the Reagan White House when Hess worked as a major Republican official. He also has extremely hard news for Philomena: Michael Hess was dead.
Philomena is devastated by the news, sensing that the search has been for nothing, and that moreover Michael never cared about his birth mother or his Irish roots. Despite her Catholicism she is quite at ease with Michael's homosexuality (having sensed it since his childhood), which he kept secret, along with his death from AIDS. Martin's editors insist he follow the story to the bitter end, and while Philomena says she understands if he wants to end the story, he and she decide that it would be good to find family and friends for her to learn about Michael. Martin by now has come to care for the sweet-natured Philomena, and he stumbles onto a clue that will delight her: an Irish harp lapel pin. Michael's official photo has him wearing an Irish harp pin, showing that he kept Eire in his heart.
Now Philomena and Martin search for Michael's partner, Peter Olssen (Pete Herman) who wants nothing to do with them. Eventually they go to his home, and while he first refuses Martin he breaks down for Philomena. In a video played at Michael's funeral Philomena gets confirmation of what Martin suspected (after Michael's sister provided a barely-noticed clue): Michael had gone to Ireland to search for his birth mother. The video shows him at the Sean Ross Abbey, and the clue they had (a family fight over where Michael was to be buried) leads them back to the Abbey itself. Michael's last wish was to be buried at the Abbey, in the hopes that his mother would come to his grave. With that, it's back to the Emerald Isle. Martin is incensed by how the Church treated Philomena and all the other girls. He manages to find the frail Sister Hildegard (Barbara Jefford), the author of all this chaos, and he lets the habit have it. While Sister Hildegard remains unrepentant, Philomena lets her know she forgives her. Martin is apoplectic, saying the Church should beg HER forgiveness, not the other way round. Philomena, however, rebukes Martin. "I don't want to hate people. I don't want to be like you," she tells him. Philomena now is able to be at peace with her son close to her and Martin Sixsmith has a story to tell, with some thoughts about how he sees matters of faith.
I do find it a bit difficult to review Philomena only because of the one memory of the screening I attended that comes to mind. I was the only person in the theater who didn't remember when Eisenhower was President. I could never shake off the impression that Philomena was for an older set (the same way Being Julia appeared to my parents/grandparents more than people my age). However, another reaction from the screening has also stayed with me.
There wasn't a dry eye in the house. If you are curious I did not cry openly, but I did feel a certain lump in my own throat seeing this journey Philomena went through.
I think this is part due to Dench's performance. We can almost always count on Dame Judi (Brother Gabe's secret object of lust, but that's for another time) to turn in a brilliant job, and in Philomena, we can't help loving this sweet woman, who is kind, finds the world endlessly fascinating, and who above all else manages to hold on to her faith. Her Catholicism is not a burden but a source of strength, and she despite her lack of education (a running joke was that she kept referring to Sixsmith's education as being from 'Oxbridge', unaware that she was blending Oxford and Cambridge) she has what Sixsmith doesn't: an understanding that the institution failed her, not the source of said institution. She doesn't hold the Church responsible for the miseries she endured because of the nuns' rigid interpretations. She is angry, but she also knows, unlike Sixsmith, that holding on to resentment will enslave her. Philomena has no airs of intellectual grandness. Her rustic manner may appear almost to ridicule her, but I think people will find her lack of guile endearing. In her own way, Philomena is wise beyond Martin. "Just because you're in First Class, doesn't make you a First Class person," she observes when going on her first flight anywhere. I say "Amen to that, sister".
As a side note, Dench's portrayal of Philomena reminds me of my own mother in this respect. Martin casually asks her what she is reading, and with that, Philomena is off and running giving an entire recap of the romance novel that has so thrilled her (much to his clear horror). My mother does the exact same thing only with movies. I could ask what she watched or is watching, and I get the whole film, down to subplots and twists.
I can't say I'm a fan of Steve Coogan as an actor or writer, but his screenplay (co-written with Jeff Pope...does anyone else find irony in that), contrary to what people might have said, is not a hatchet job. If it was intended to be, much like a previous Stephen Frears film (The Queen), instead of being negative it inadvertently shows it to be positive. Yes, the actions of the sisters was contrary to the teachings of Christ, but we don't see all the nuns as monsters. Even in the dark days of Philomena's confinement, there were some caring nuns, and in the present some sisters did try to help and provide comfort to Philomena. Also, rather than make the atheist/anti-religious Sixsmith heroic, the film does not shy away from making him unlikable. He is rude to people, he belittles Philomena's faith to her face, and is so wrapped up in his own moral righteousness that he comes across as the atheist mirror opposite of the strict and uncaring Sister Hildegard (who fifty years later still holds Philomena to be a wretched, damned woman because of her 'carnality'). I figure the atheist Coogan might have thought Philomena's story would make us at the least see the Catholic Church as something horrible, but like Philomena I saw a system that was wrong, not the message or messenger Himself.
I ended up loving Philomena Lee and Philomena itself. It is well-acted, movingly so. We care about her and find her a lovely person, wise and faithful in her way. We get surprising twists and turns that are totally unexpected (which means most are true), and it is nearly impossible not to find Philomena and Philomena simply loverly.