“Philomena”: A Journey of Forgiveness

“Philomena” is a complicated film that challenges audiences on so many levels that it can be hard to tell exactly what the screenwriter and director wanted to achieve with their work.  The film story of Philomena Lee (played by the always wonderful Dame Judi Dench) is “inspired by true events,” meaning not everyone you see in the next few hours actually happened.  While the story is based on a moving book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, it is the film’s Director (Stephen Frears) and lead actors (Steve Coogan and Judi Dench) who make “Philomena” a stellar film.

“Philomena” is a biographical drama which may be a difficult for many Catholics, particularly those of Irish descent, to watch.  The film tells the story of the retired Philomena Lee who as the result of family shame, was sent to a nunnery in Ireland and gave birth to her son Anthony.  A few years later, she sadly watched her son Anthony be adopted by a wealthy American couple and taken away.  Upon what would have been Anthony’s fiftieth birthday, the present-day Philomena notes this anniversary with much sadness and worry about what happened to her little boy.  Fortunately, her daughter (played by Anna Maxwell-Martin) takes it upon herself to pitch Martin Sixsmith, (a former BBC newsman and now disgraced Government spokesperson) to pursue Philomena’s quest as a news story.  Martin’s initial reluctance, then relenting to covering such a personal “human interest” story rather than something more lofty and world-changing immediately hooks the audience in for what will become a great journey.

“Philomena” is a film about many things, not the least of which is a mother searching for her son. The film also involves the role of religion in raising, protecting and honoring children; humble, old-school expectations in a brash, ego-centric modern world; secular media desires to undermine institutions; rebuilding or rediscovering one’s own value in life; and exploitation of the common man for entertainment.  Perhaps though, the most important thing that “Philomena” is about is the role of Belief and Forgiveness in accepting life as it comes.

There is also a running theme and a great source of conflict between Philomena and Martin stemming resulting from her strong belief in God and his utter disdain and lack of belief in a greater power.  What Martin sees Philomena using her religion to justify what happened to her and her son Anthony decades ago as supreme weakness.  Philomena’s thankfulness for the Catholic Church and the nuns for taking her and her unborn son in at their most needy time totally confound Martin.  While he is more sophisticated and urbane, he also is more crude and unhappy than the pop-culture happy Philomena who smiles through life and is warm with regular people.  Martin seems quite uncomfortable with those of less serious stature and bearing.

Philomena Judi Dench and Steve Coogan Photo by Alex Bailey

Judi Dench as Philomena Lee and Steve Coogan as
Martin Sixsmith in “Philomena”
Courtesy, The Weinstein Company

The life lessons she imparts to Martin Sixsmith are best underscored when she reminds him to be nice to people on the way up because he’ll see them on the way down again.  It is a simple lesson that most people know, but Martin apparently never learned.  However, they do develop a good mother-surrogate son relationship at times that transcends the actual business arrangement they work under.  He will help her find her son (with all expenses paid), in exchange for an exclusive take down of the “evil nuns” (the film’s words, not mine).

The journey that Philomena and Martin take to find Anthony involves U.S. national politics and some of the social issues our country struggles with today.  One of the controversial aspects of the film is the scenes dealing with Anthony’s ascent to the highest levels of the Republican Party and how it impacts the story.  Facts are facts and the film treats them correctly, but while their mention may be accurate, the way they are presented in “Philomena” could be a little less heavy-handed.  Neither Republicans, nor anyone should be dissuaded from seeing this film.

That said, there is an unseemliness to how eager Martin and his newspaper editor are to take down the Catholic Church, the nuns and the idea of adoption in the film.  There may be a reality to it and if it is real, it is quite enlightening.  Many mistakes were made by Catholic adoption agencies years ago and the conditions under which the baby’s mothers were made to work and live certainly weren’t ideal or deserved.  However, when women like Philomena express that they are grateful for the opportunities that their babies had through their adoptions… there is a lot to be said for that.  Much shame was attached to a very young, unwed woman becoming pregnant back in the 1950s.  However, even more shame and lack of opportunity was attached to the child living in poverty because of their mother’s pregnancy.  There won’t be any spoilers here, but needless to say that “Philomena” does get a positive message across here that an adopted life can be a very good one.

The ending of “Philomena” is as powerful as it is astounding.  The closing scenes’ turn of events come as a surprise, even if they shouldn’t.  The film’s most memorable moment comes when Philomena wields the power of forgiveness.  While, she wouldn’t have been able to get any answers to what happened to her little Anthony without Martin… any offer of forgiveness and moving on from what happened is only Philomena’s to give.  At the end of the day, even though she may have just been a little Irish granny – she holds a greater power than the high-flying Martin.  That is the simple power to forgive and for many, that is something many of us struggle to have.  Perhaps that is the message of “Philomena.”  If so, than this film is much more than the sum of its parts.  It is a force to be reckoned with.
“Philomena” is rated PG-13 and is in theatres now.  4 Stars out of 4.

© 2013 The Willams View

About the Author:

Jennifer Williams is an accomplished writer, interviewer and critical reviewer having written about or covered many subjects of interests. Having graduated from Tulane University, La Salle University and New York University, Kevin's career background in Politics and Civic Affairs, Public Relations, Marketing, Non-Profit Management and Filmmaking have helped inspire much of her past artistic and creative efforts. Jennifer directed and co-produced the documentary feature film, Fear Of A Black Republican. Her latest film, Rebel Song, looks at a middle-aged American Celtic Rock band and the music inspired by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Rebel Song is expected to be released in 2014. In addition to The Williams View, Jennifer is also the Entertainment and Politics Editor for Politisite, a Contributing Writer for Townhall, Breitbart's Big Hollywood, Liberatchik and Hip Hop Republican. Jennifer has been interviewed or profiled across many Media outlets such as the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, Kansas City Star, L.A. Weekly; Current TV, Christian Broadcasting Network, Huffington Post Live, Al Jazeera and BET News; radio programs ranging from National Public Radio, Voice of Russia - American Edition, the Mark Davis Radio Show, the Chris Stigall Show, the Steve Deace Show, the Bob Grant Show, Victoria Taft Show, to the Michael Eric Dyson Show and many others.

1 Comment on "“Philomena”: A Journey of Forgiveness"

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  1. Jack Gregory says:

    Mr. Williams,

    Once again you nailed it. Having seen the film and can readily identify with some of the major themes and lessons I agree with your summation and analysis. Your points about the role of Belief and Forgiveness in accepting life as it comes is spot-on. I eagerly await the opportunity to obtain the DVD version so I can listen to the director’s take on things. I am in hope that Charlie Rose can hold me over until I do with one of his timely and provocative interviews. Who knows maybe you will have your own black curtain, pitcher of water, and round table of your own some day. Take care and see you at the movies.

    Jack Gregory

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