Great performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan form the centre of this utterly compelling true story, director Steven Frears’ best film since The Queen.
Based on Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Dench plays Philomena, a woman who in her teenage years had a child out of wedlock. She was sent to one of Ireland’s notorious Magdalene laundries – little more than Victorian workhouses run by nuns for girls deemed morally “shamed” by their Catholic families. After delivering and caring for her baby boy for two years, he was taken from Philomena by force and sold to an American couple who wanted to adopt.
Fifty years later, Philomena wishes to track down the son she never knew. Enter recently unemployed journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) who investigates her story, at first with some reluctance. The two travel to America and form an unlikely friendship amid their quest. Their investigations take them to Washington DC and the legal advisors of the White House. Complications build from there, and I don’t want to say too much more for the sake of those unfamiliar with the true events.
What the Catholic Church allowed to occur in the brutal and extremely corrupt Magdalene laundries deserves unambiguous condemnation in the strongest possible terms. The subject was dealt with directly in Peter Mullan’s powerful The Magdalene Sisters, but in Philomena the laundries loom in the background like an ominous shadow. Philomena herself is astonishingly quick to point out that not all the nuns were bad, and determinedly sees the good in the Catholic Church – even though the audience is more likely to sympathise with Sixsmith’s views on their decidedly un-Christlike dealings. Consequently the film has an extremely effective undercurrent of seething anger that acts as a counterpoint to the odd couple bond that develops between Philomena and Sixsmith.
Ultimately Philomena is a deeply moving journey that comes highly recommended as far as I’m concerned, despite the fact that I know some Christians will take issue with some of the content contained herein. But they shouldn’t. For example, themes of homosexuality crop up, but that is simply an accurate reflection of factual events and a strictly non-judgemental stance is taken – rightly in my view. Elsewhere, Philomena repeatedly challenges Sixsmith’s views on God, often to highly amusing effect, and most tellingly in the finale. Speaking of which, Christians of all creeds (including Catholics) ought to cheer how powerfully the theme of forgiveness plays out in this sequence, even when no remorse is expressed by a character whose actions were utterly reprehensible.
On a very personal note, it’s worth adding that Philomena forces me to once again grapple with a nagging question I have always struggled with: How is it that the Jesus Christ I know and love can be so grossly misrepresented by those who claim to serve him? There is true Christianity on display in Philomena from Philomena herself, but not from the Catholic Church.