Sometimes the three simplest of words can leave the biggest impact on a person’s life. The words “I love you” are probably the first thing that enters your mind. True, it brings an assurance of closure from another. In Philomena, the most powerful moment has to do with these three simple words: “I forgive you.” This true story of a mother’s search for her son tells how she came to say those simple words and how hard it was to say them.
Who is Philomena Lee (Judi Dench)? She seems like an average old woman. She is very pleasant and seems like a good mother to her daughter. But there is a moment in her past she is ashamed of. When she was young woman living in Ireland (and played by Sophie Kennedy Clark), she had a fling with a man at a fair that left her knocked up. In the repressive society of Ireland, this makes her a sinner. She is thrown into a convent where she is forced into hard labour for four years. To add insult to injury, the nuns shame her into giving away her child to an American family. After 50 years of keeping it a secret from her daughter, she still feels the shame brought on by the nuns. Wanting to know if her son has ever gone looking for her, she is determined to try and find him.
In comes Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the script). He’s a cynical journalist who has just lost his job as a Labour government advisor. He longs to write a book on Russian history but he doesn’t think anyone would be interested. He’s approached to write about Philomena’s search. At first he is hesitant and is against the idea of writing a “human interest story”. But after hearing Philomena’s story, Martin takes an interest in it. Being unemployed also served as motivation. Using his journalistic skills, Martin assists with Philomena on her search and finds he might be more connected than he realizes.
The film’s strength comes from the chemistry between Steve Coogan and Judi Dench. Coogan brings the same sardonic cynicism he brings to his comedic roles, whether it is self-absorbed Alan Partridge or real life new wave club owner Tony Wilson. He even plays himself as an insecure ball of cluelessness. With Sixsmith, he also brings a passionate anger towards the injustices of the world. Plus, he does empathize with Lee. In the end, this is Dench’s show. Her Lee is a kind, precocious woman that even the coldest audience member could warm to. At the same time, Dench expresses the shame Lee feels for abandoning her child and her determination in finding her.
Lee was one among a generation of “shamed mothers” who were forced by nuns into giving up their children. They were also forced into hard labour. All for having children out of wedlock. The film is harsh critique of the Roman Catholic Church’s abuse of power. Despite being the victim, Philomena still blames herself for losing her child. The more they learn about her child, the more we find out about how despicable the system was. Philomena finds the strength to stop blaming herself. Instead of reacting with anger as Sixsmith does, she uses her faith in God to find the strength to say those three simple words. Thus, unknowingly bringing her closer to faith than the nuns who tried to ruin her life.
I won’t give away what happened to her son 1. The discovery brings the film to a bittersweet but satisfying ending. No matter how it ends, Philomena will be grateful that at least she knew who her son was.
1) I know that it sounds pointless to some of you considering the fact it is a true story. Some people still prefer guessing what’s going to happen as if it were a fictional movie.