When I was in high school, one of the girls in the next class up became pregnant to her boyfriend. She was the daughter of the high school counselor, and as such, her pregnancy would have reflected badly on his career. The family (and I was not a friend of them to know how the decision transpired) chose to send her away to relatives to give birth to the baby, and reportedly to allow the baby to be adopted, thereby saving the teen's father the shame of having an unwed mother in his family.
That would have been in 1970 or '71.
Twenty years before, things were pretty much the same. Philomena Lee found herself pregnant after a fling with a handsome man, and her parent -- accounts only mention her father -- sent her off to a convent which specialized in unwed mothers to give birth to avoid the shame of an unwed mother in the family.
The film moved me to tears, because I could imagine the horror and pain of losing my daughter to an adoption by strangers, and never again hearing her distinctive laughter or seeing the light in her eyes -- traits which endure to this day. What mother who loved her child would ever want to sacrifice one laugh, one connection of sight?
In the movie, Philomena carries the memory of the child she allowed (by contract) to be adopted, wanting to find her child, Anthony, whom she loved, for fifty years, just to know that he was all right, and to wonder if he ever thought of her. The movie is about her attempt to find him.
Dame Judi Dench is -- as always -- brilliant in the role of Philomena, by turns tragic in her memories, yet pragmatic in her present. Steve Coogan, I'm a little less thrilled with, as in writing the screenplay, he falsified the account of the search in a couple of places, notably that Philomena never traveled to the US with journalist Martin Sixsmith, and that there was never a confrontation with Sister Hildegard, as the woman had died years before Sixsmith joined the search for Philomena's son.
In the film, in spite of Philomena still being a devout Catholic, there is a major Catholic-whacking essence. Evil nuns of the evil Catholic Church are evilly adopting out children to Americans for $$$. Hmm. Utterly unmentioned are the government of Ireland, which sanctioned the adoptions, or the fathers of the children, who refused to raise their sons and daughters, or Philomena's father, who cast her off; nor is mentioned at all the many countries and states and neighborhoods who did the same damn thing -- see my first paragraph.
Do we always know the true consequences of our agreements we make in times of stress? Of course not, and Philomena probably didn't when she signed a paper that stated her unborn child would be put up for adoption; she didn't know what the child was, or who he was at that point. You're pregnant, there's a baby in your belly, but what is a baby, really, if you don't know babies? An inconvenience, a frightening event that's made your life a nightmare ... until you see the flesh of your flesh, the unique color of his eyes, the sound of his laugh.
Philomena's story is the story of all women who have lost or given their flesh to adoption and wonder:
Did he or she ever want to see who I am?
Yes, I can have banal tastes in film -- not base, mind you, but admittedly banal. You have to remember that as a kid, I went to the local movie house on Saturday morning and would watch three, sometimes four movies in a row. It was a quarter, the theater was air conditioned, my friends were all there. These were not good movies. If you can remember the Godzilla movies back in the day, the original Japanese-with-dubbed-English-man-in-a-rubber-monster-suit movies, then you are remembering the very best of the stuff that we watched. But I loved it, and to this day, I will watch a lot of stuff just for the heck of it. I have even gone to Tom Cruise movies and hated the movie but loved the movie going.
We haven't been going to a lot of movies recently, because ... well, for a lot of reasons, including time constraints due to family commitments and money constraints due to money commitments. I have told the guy at the grocery store that I am a columnist for the Piker Press and therefore I could be trusted to pay him as soon as our accountant opens The Press coffers, but he just rolled his eyes.
"Besides," he said, "the last you movie you liked really sucked, and furthermore, Tom Cruise is an excellent actor who can carry the lead in action films and romantic comedies with equal aplomb."
I suggested that his plums in the fresh fruit section were well on their way to being prunes, and that his meat department dealt only in Egyptian antiquities, and then I left.
Philomena, despite receiving four Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), never made it to our local theater. The person who arranges for the films to be shown at the theater must be related to the buyer at the grocery store since they both have a penchant for large, sugary items with little nutritional value. Fortunately, my son-in-law, who also has a marked fondness for large sugary items, has a Netflix account through which can be arranged the delivery of organic, free range, fair trade certified movies, to wit, Philomena.
The story chronicles the trials encountered by Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench) in her attempts to find the child from whom she was separated almost fifty years ago. She had been placed in one of Ireland's Magdelene Laundries, the controversial homes for delinquent or destitute girls and women. She is single and pregnant. After the child is born, she stays at the home, working in the laundry ostensibly to work off the debt incurred by her and her child. In a strictly regimented environment, she is allowed only one hour a day of interaction with her child. Then, when the boy is three years old, an adoption is arranged, and the boy is sent off with unknown people to unknown places. Philomena is aware of the adoption only when she sees the boy, Anthony, being led to a car that takes him away. She is devastated. After she has worked off her debt, she leaves the laundry and builds a life, marries and has children. She keeps the story to herself for most of her life, but on what would have been Anthony's fiftieth birthday, she finally breaks down and confesses to her daughter. The daughter enlists the aid of a journalist, Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan, who was also one of the producers and one of the screen writers). Philomena and Sixsmith find that the boy was adopted by an American couple and had gone off to live in the States, so they themselves travel to America in search of his fate. What they find is quite surprising.
This is one of those "based on the incredible true story" movies. The movie posters have that very line right there under the title, and the movie makes sure you know that right at the very beginning, and there really is a Philomena Lee and there really is a Martin Sixsmith, and there really was a Magdelene Laundry, and there really was an adoption. And this really is a good movie. It's a gut-wrenching tale that might easily come from the pen of Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens. It has fine direction, tight writing, compelling characters, fine acting by Coogan, and great acting by Dench. It is a good movie.
Now it might be easy for my public to say, "Oh, boy, Bernie's Catholic, he's not gonna like this one." And as a public service disclaimer, it should be known that indeed I am Catholic, and I am not one of those writers who say that they no longer believe anything the Church teaches and that the Church is stupid, but because they were once Catholic, they now have an inalienable right to personally judge the veracity of anything the Church does. There. I think that satisfies the legal requirements and places the Press squarely in compliance with the FTC's requirement for "clear and conspicuous disclosure." There is a whole ongoing argument about whether there was an intentional anti-Catholic bias to this film, but I'm not going to go there.
My reaction to this film was almost identical to my reaction to Zero Dark Thirty. Interestingly, both movies were billed as "based on true events," and I was attracted to each movie because of my admiration of the work of the main actor (Dench in Philomena and Jessica Chastain in ZDThirty). Both are great movies and worth watching.
Both suffer from a major flaw -- too much of the story is fiction. In Zero Dark Thirty, the Chastain character, the main character, the character you want to identify with and cheer for, simply does not exist. The movie centers on her role in the tracking down of Osama Bin Laden, and she doesn't exist. In Philomena, as Sand has already mentioned, two major elements in the plot, the trip to America and the dramatic, pivotal confrontation with Sr. Hildegard, simply did not happen. In both cases, I felt cheated. While I certainly understand that there can be a need to extrapolate some things in order to make a story move along, I think that if you're going to claim to tell a true story, it ought not to fabricate key elements because it detracts from what truth there may be.
I am reminded of the opening lines of Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan of the Apes:
I do not say the story is true, for I did not witness the happenings which it portrays, but the fact that in the telling of it to you I have taken fictitious names for the principal characters quite sufficiently evidences the sincerity of my own belief that it may be true ... I give you the story as I painstakingly pieced it out from these several various agencies. If you do not find it credible you will at least be as one with me in acknowledging that it is unique, remarkable, and interesting.
I wish the writers of Philomena had been a bit more painstaking in their efforts, or perhaps simply resorted to fictitious names.