Over the past weekend I saw “Philomena,” a lovely, gentle movie about a woman’s hunt for the son she was forced to give up for adoption decades earlier. Based on a true story by Martin Sixsmith and published in 2009 as The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the movie stars the peerless Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as Sixsmith, the journalist who helps her track down her son. Both actors are being mentioned as likely Oscar nominees for their roles, and Coogan as a nominee for the screenplay he co-authored. In a brief but enchanting performance, Sophie Kennedy Clark appears as the young teenage Philomena living in a home for unwed mothers run by a Catholic convent in Roscrea, Ireland.
Two atypical love stories propel the movie: Philomena’s undying love for Anthony, the son she has not seen since he was three and whom she has spent her life looking for, and the relationship that develops between her and the cynical Sixsmith, who is covering her story for a British newspaper. The second relationship gives the movie its humor and introduces questions about faith, forgiveness and judgment likely to linger in viewers’ minds after they leave the movie theater. As they search for the adult Anthony, Sixsmith, a non-believer, and Philomena, a Christian, respond to the stonewalling they receive from the convent sisters with very different attitudes, attitudes that have everything to do with their religious convictions or lack of them.
Before going to the movie, I had no idea there was any particular controversy about it. Since seeing it, I’ve learned that it has spurred debate in Ireland about the Catholic Church’s treatment of unwed mothers and its role in forcing them to give up their children for adoption, often, as in the case of Philomena’s son, to wealthy Catholics in the United States. One film critic for The New York Post accused the film of being an attack on the Catholic Church, a charge Philomena Lee, now 80 and living in London, has vigorously disputed.
The liberties the movie took with the book have also been debated. Philomena Lee was not always the faithful Catholic she is depicted as in the film. Either to make her a more distinctive character, or to sharpen the contrast between her and the journalist, she is portrayed as a little more simple and unsophisticated than she is in real life. The filmmakers also play with events involving the arch-villain of the movie, Sr. Hildegarde, shown in the film as a bitter, repressed nun whose crabbed interpretation of faith leads her to take vindictive satisfaction in Philomena’s suffering when she’s in childbirth and who years later deliberately withholds information from Philomena about her son’s whereabouts. The real Sr. Hildegarde died years before Martin Sixsmith ever came on the scene and the confrontation in the film involving her, Sixsmith and Philomena never took place. Sisters at the convent in Roscrea, where Philomena and her son lived in the 1950s, have complained that the film offers a misleading picture of the events that took place there.
Most of the people seeing “Philomena” won’t know these details. And indeed, none of them much matter. Interesting and even important as questions of factual accuracy and context are, “Philomena” is a feature film, not a documentary, and has to stand on its artistic merits. This it does, offering an affecting story artfully told, wonderful performances from its cast and a thoughtful portrayal of the role played by religion and the religious in an historical and apparently all too common injustice in Ireland.
Good storytelling in film is not uncommon. What is more unusual are the filmmakers’ interest in the spiritual issues raised by the story they tell. It’s a rare movie today that examines what it means to be a Christian and how that alters a person. “Philomena” does. As critical as it is of the harsh treatment accorded unwed mothers by Catholic sisters in Ireland, the movie isn’t simplistic. Nor is it anti-religious. The ongoing discussion about religion that takes place between Philomena and Sixsmith as they travel in search of her son pits the apparent simplicity of Philomena’s faith against the doubts and misgivings of the Oxford-educated Sixsmith. The moral outrage expressed by the witty, intellectual Sixsmith at the wrong done to Philomena years earlier may articulate the feelings of most moviegoers, but it’s Philomena’s faith, willingness to forgive and kindness that we are moved by as viewers. Sixsmith’s religious doubts seem superficial and shallow, in contrast.
If you’ve had enough of holiday shopping and the commercial fa-la-la that goes with how Americans celebrate Christmas, you may want to slip away to see a movie that treats faith honestly yet respectfully. “Philomena” may break your heart while watching it, but you won’t feel bored, exploited or patronized. You may even feel uplifted by a movie that doesn’t sugarcoat loss and its lingering wake. Bad things happen in “Philomena,” but if there’s any neat message to be drawn from it, it’s that faith matters; love endures.