Judi Dench, consummate pro of an actress that she is, made me cry 8 minutes into Philomena. Her adult daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) is rushing off to a late shift at work, but sees her mother Philomena staring at an old photograph, clutched in her hand.
“Who is it?” her daughter asks gently, of the little boy in the photo.
“It’s his birthday. He’d be 50 today…” says Philomena, shiny eyes, barely able to get the words out.
(Suddenly I get something in my eye… can’t explain the abrupt watering…)
Philomena is based on a rather amazing and extremely moving true story of one woman who represents many girls in Ireland. In the 20th century, unmarried Irish Catholic girls were absolutely not supposed to be pregnant out of wedlock. Many of them were sent away to give birth in secret under the watchful and disapproving eyes of nuns. After a tryst at a fair, Philomena found herself in that situation, and was sent to an abbey to the Magdalene sisters where she gave birth to baby boy Anthony. Forced to work in trade for staying there, the young mothers were allowed to see their children and bond with them. However, the nuns had their own designs. The young children were offered up for adoption, often to Americans, and the young mothers often never got to say goodbye.
Philomena’s daughter Jane approaches a disgraced government press secretary named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) about her mother’s story. Martin, who is introduced as a classist snob, not to mention a non-believer who has lost his way in life now that his career is in shambles, dismisses Philomena’s story as “human interest” (aka too lowbrow for his intellectual tastes). But something tugs at him, and he agrees to meet Philomena. Thus begins an investigation and very personal journey for the two of them as their search for Anthony crosses two continents and reveals surprising turn after surprising turn (many of the twists, yes, made me cry all over again).
I knew absolutely nothing about Philomena going in (mistakenly thinking it was a wacky road movie, based on the poster), and I left with the movie firmly on my Top Ten for 2013. There is some gentle humor in the movie (after all, Coogan was a co-writer of the screenplay) to break up the heartbreaks, but the film holds real power in the facts. No matter Philomena’s story, and her amazing discoveries in her personal journey, the viewer can’t get over the shock that she was just one girl of thousands whom had their children taken by the unapologetic nuns, and sold to pay for the shame of their mothers. Absolutely devastating.
Philomena was a very personal journey for Steve Coogan who worked on the screenplay. He even admits that Martin Sixsmith (in the movie) was actually more of a conglomeration of the real Sixsmith and Coogan himself (who was raised Catholic, unlike Sixsmith). In addition to a commentary by Coogan and screenwriter Jeff Pope, there are a couple short featurettes, “The Real Philomena Lee” (which is more about the movie, than about the real woman… I’ve seen more about her just by watching Oscar specials!), and “A Conversation with Judi Dench”, where she talks about her career (but not really Philomena itself). Best is the Q&A with Steve Coogan, with 20 plus minutes of an interview and audience questions at a festival.