When men treat me badly, I try to chalk it up to their being men and think about karma when I want to bash their heads in. But as a lifelong feminist, when women treat me badly, I feel wounded and heartsick. Sisters, after all, are supposed to be sisterly. I still feel this way, despite the fact that most of the people in my life who have done me bad have been women.
So the subject matter of this film—a woman’s lifelong search for her child, which was taken from her by women who then deliberately kept her from finding her child with extreme cruelty and deception, well, that’s the kind of story material that makes my blood boil. That it was Catholic nuns who did these terrible things, makes me even madder because, as they say way too often, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. I was tortured and insulted by nuns when I was in grade school, but by the time I got to college, the nuns were different (or maybe I wasn’t so obnoxious), so my opinions of nuns is mostly benign…except when I see films like Philomena and remember the monsters from my childhood.
And if you read the newspapers, you know that Ireland in the 1950s was a living nightmare for young unwed mothers who were sent to convents to atone for their sins and became indentured servants for years. And if you ever saw the film, The Magdalene Sisters (2002), you know how horrible some of the nuns in Ireland used to be. If you have any faith left, it’s enough to make you abandon it entirely.
In 1952, young Philomena, enjoyed a lovely night of romance with a sweet young man. Alas, like millions of naïve young women before her, she got pregnant. And so off she was sent to a convent to hide her shame and have her child in secret. At Roscrea convent in County Tipperary, many of the young women, one as young as 14, died in childbirth, the nuns having refused to give them pain pills because suffering was the punishment they deserved. The grounds of the convent were strewn with headstones marking the burials of teenage girls and their infants.
But Philomena was lucky. She gave birth to a healthy boy, and she was allowed to see him a few hours a week, when she wasn’t toiling in the laundry room. But when the boy was 3 years old, he and his favorite playmate, a little girl, were yanked from their mothers’ arms and given to adoptive parents. Not newborn infants that the mothers had hardly gotten the chance to bond with, but three-year olds, who had distinct personalities, sang songs, played games and loved their mothers.
Philomena was devastated. A kindly nun had taken a photograph of her son and surreptitiously gave it to her. Except for that photo, Philomena had nothing that belonged to the boy.
Eventually Philomena went to nursing school, got married, had children and grandchildren – and tried endlessly to find her first child. Repeatedly she went back to the convent and talked to the nuns to try to get information. Repeatedly she was told there was no record of what happened to the child.
One day, at a party, her daughter ran into a world-weary journalist, a BBC reporter, who had just been fired from his position as an adviser to the Labour party. This was Martin Sixsmith, played by English actor/comedian Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote the script). When the daughter approaches Martin about helping her mother find the lost child, he dismisses her not wanting to do anything that smacks of “human interest.” (Yessir, an insufferable prig!)
But eventually, won over by Philomena, and the interest of a high-powered magazine editor who sees merit to the story, whether it ends happily or not, Martin agrees to help Philomena. They start the search together at the convent, , where the nuns give Martin the cold shoulder just as they had done to Philomena. But he’s a journalist, and a guy, and his disrespect for religion in general and nuns in specific, puts his suspicions on high alert.
In the capable hands of director Stephen Frears (The Queen), scene by scene, almost like a thriller, we come to realize the horrors that happened behind those sacred walls. Outrage at these holy women, and the cruelty they perpetuated, builds until you feel like running up to the screen and strangling them.
Martin and Philomena learn from the townspeople that hundreds of children who were born in the convent were sold to Americans who wanted to adopt white children.
With the support of the magazine editor, Philomena and Martin go off to American. During this time, we see Philomena from Martin’s eyes. She’s naïve and sweet and funny because she’s so provincial, and he, and we, laugh at her. Soon we will find out how wrong we are. Naïve and sweet, yes, but Philomena has the determination of a detective and the dignity of a queen. And soon we learn what Martin comes to realize – nothing will stop this woman, nothing will prevent this mother from finding her child. And sophisticated as he is, and simple as she is, he has a lot to learn from her.
But every lead, every tantalizing tidbit, leads to nothing. Until that one day when Martin opens his laptop and finds a new website…
What’s so amazing about Philomena, is not just how satisfying it is, and how mesmerizing the performances are, but that it is a true story. If it weren’t based on fact, the story is so incredible that it would be rejected by some sorry story editor as being unbelievable… but every twist and detour of the story turns out to be true, painfully, terribly, wonderfully true. And in the end, the most fascinating movie couple of the year is not a romantic twosome, or violent buddies, but an old Irish lady and a journalist who becomes a believer.
The book, written by Martin Sixsmith, from which the script was adapted, is The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, published in 2009 and now updated as a movie tie-in.