Philomena ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp
In 1950s Ireland, a teenage girl named Philomena Lee has a baby out of wedlock. Her family shuns her so she goes into a Catholic home for unwed mothers. In exchange for the nuns taking care of her and delivering her baby, she must stay in the home for four years and work like a slave, seven days a week. (The nuns believe the unwed mothers should suffer and do penance for their sins.) Philomena is allowed to see her baby, which is kept in another part of the home, for one hour a day. When the baby, whom she has named Anthony, is about two years old, the nuns adopt him out (in other words, “sell” him for a thousand pounds) to an American couple. Philomena has nothing to say about Anthony’s adoption and isn’t allowed to even see him before he goes.
Fifty years later, when Philomena (Judi Dench) is an old woman, she talks about Anthony for the first time and reveals the heartbreak she has endured in silence because of him. A journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) hears about her case and decides he will do a “human interest” piece on her because he has recently been fired from his job and doesn’t have much else to do. When Martin and Philomena go to the home for unwed mothers, called Rosecrae, where Anthony was born, they are told that all records of adoptions were lost in a fire and there is no way of knowing what happened to Anthony. And, anyway, they remind Philomena, she signed a contract stating she would never attempt to contact Anthony or try to find out what happened to him. Martin is immediately suspicious, pointing out that, while all records were lost, the contract severing any connection between mother and child remained intact through all the years. As Martin and Philomena are to discover, the nuns deliberately throw up a wall of deception to keep Philomena from learning the truth about her son.
With Martin Sixsmith’s help, Philomena embarks on an odyssey, eventually to America, to try to meet the son she gave up for adoption, to find out what kind of a man he has become and to ask him if he remembers anything about her or the country of his birth. Discovering Anthony’s adopted named, Michael Hess, eventually leads Martin and Philomena to the truth, and that truth leads them back to where they started from in Ireland. As Martin says, quoting T.S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Philomena is based on a true story. Seventy-nine-year-old Judi Dench is superb, as always, as Philomena. It’s a fine movie, with an ending that is completely satisfying, though not a happy one. As we are told at the end of the movie, there are thousands of women like Philomena who try to reconnect with the children they gave up decades earlier. Many times what they uncover they would probably have been better off not knowing, but the truth, for them, no matter how terrible, is better than knowing nothing at all.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp