Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan (screenplay), Jeff Pope (screenplay), Martin Sixsmith (book)
Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark
(Published in Spring, Women’s Voices, Fall, 2014)
I walked a mile with Pleasure, She chattered all the way; But left me none the wiser For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow, And ne’er a word said she;
But oh, the things I learned from her When Sorrow walked with me.
— Robert Browning Hamilton, “Along the Road”
I could have been the main character played by Judi Dench in Philomena. I had a close friend who found herself in a similar position. To be an unmarried pregnant teenager in 1950’s America as well as in Ireland was not simply frowned upon, it was a slip from grace. Philomena Lee, upon whose story the film Philomena is based, was given shelter and educated at the Sacred Heart Catholic Convent in Roscrea, Ireland. When she was found pregnant by the nuns, it was firm evidence of her fallen soul. For the rest of us, we simply suffered the shame of being a girl with sexual desires. There was no “girls will be girls” impetus for adults to look the other way with an approving smile of recognition as there was for boys. No get-out-of-jail-free card. No respect.
The road to respect, in the capable and gifted hands of director Stephen Frears, receives a romantic, innocent beginning in Philomena. Philomena Lee is a young teenage girl who, having gotten pregnant in a happenstance moment of pleasure at a county fair with a boy her own age, loses the rights to her child. She is, after all, a ward of Roscrea Convent and she has sinned. Her three-year-old son, put up for adoption by the nuns, disappears from her life. All her attempts to find him are thwarted by devilish, punishing Catholic rules regarding adoption. Yet, Philomena is still a deeply faithful Catholic at sixty-five as she lights a votive candle for her lost son’s fiftieth birthday. When Philomena confesses the birth and her despairing search for her son to her grownup daughter, she breaks the silence of a secret kept to herself for so many years. Her daughter responds sympathetically—and with a next-generation determination, she sets out to ease her mother’s grief. When she overhears a man at a party saying he’s a journalist, she is not shy about appealing to him to help her mother find her lost son.
In Philomena, the man at the party is Martin Sixsmith, a noted journalist recently fired from his position as political advisor in Tony Blair’s administration on a dubious slander charge. He’s feeling a loss of identity and self-esteem, so he only half-heartedly agrees to help Philomena because a human-interest story is far from front-page news. A visit with Philomena to the convent where she gave birth yields little. But photos of well-known adoptive parents, like Jane Russell, on the wall stir his investigative instincts. Suspicious of the convent’s adoption history, he does a bit of research that warrants pitching Philomena’s story to a friend in broadcasting. Perhaps unconsciously, his own fall from prominence in the Blair administration makes him susceptible to another who has suffered a similar blow, albeit from a very different kind of authority. And he needs a project.
With a commission for a television news magazine piece and a slim lead that the boy was adopted by Americans, Philomena and Martin board a plane for Washington, D.C. to uncover the son’s whereabouts and attempt a reunion. When Philomena begins to realize that Martin may make her dream come true, she knocks on his hotel door late at night to speak to him about his being fired from his job with the Blair administration. Spoken with a sense of urgency as if he needs to hear it, she tells him, “Their loss is my find.” But this is not a documentary. Philomena’s “find” did not accompany her to the States in real life. He did not write her story. Martin Sixsmith wrote a book entitled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, about her son, a gay man who grew up to be an important advisor in the Reagan administration.
It is Stephen Frears, Steve Coogan (who also co-starred in the film), and Jeff Pope who in their adapted screenplay turn Philomena’s secret into Philomena’s own story. The narrative power of Philomena reaches beyond the women who recognize its truth as their own. The relationship between Philomena and Martin imaginatively calls to mind what might have been between Philomena and her own son. It makes an invisible loss visible. The cinematic mirroring of a “could have been” mother-son relationship in Philomena arouses empathy for the breadth and depth of a mother’s grief. A lifetime of missed moments is irreplaceable, not to be set aside as a lesser wound than the one crushing scene when Philomena, as a girl, watches her son disappear in a car with strangers. The abandoned child is common fare in literature, fairy tale, and myth. A mother’s lingering loss is rarely seen.
The charismatic Judi Dench transforms Philomena Lee into a stand-in for women who lived through—and past—the stigma of being an unwed mother. As a woman and actress, Judi Dench also provides living testimony to the changes for women experienced in one generation. Dame Dench is playing leading ladies at age seventy-nine. Forget being cast as a technical consultant in the film Marigold Hotel, she is a world class M, boss of OO7 in Skyfall ! What Judi Dench brings to Philomena is an uncanny warmth and stoicism as she bears witness to contradictions that lay within every woman. When she turns her blue eyes toward us, we become knowing co-conspirators.
Many women have now shared their plight of being “caught” pregnant and the consequences of oppressive reactions. Each story has added insight and created a public community of empathy. But, more
importantly, we watch Philomena a generation once removed. We know we were part of an immense change, and we can endow ourselves with respect, reclaim a heritage for ourselves.
Dench’s fictionalized Philomena Lee did not so much see as want to see. Catholicism blocked her sight but fed her spirit. Her desire was not to expose but to discover what others knew. She didn’t want to know the why of the nun’s decision. That was left to Martin Sixsmith, the surrogate son. Philomena wanted a first-hand experience of what had been denied her. She wanted to feel her son’s desire to be known to her. Throughout, she sticks to the choices meaningful to her.
Steve Coogan, the actor who plays Martin Sixsmith and co-wrote the screenplay, cast himself in the role of an investigator intent on getting to the bottom of Philomena’s pain. Why, indeed, had she been denied information about her son’s whereabouts? And why was she so nice about it, when he was so incensed? As director, Stephen Frears honors a feminine sensibility in Philomena, answering the latter question by showing how her grief is a part of a whole, a part of an inner sense of self. She’s feeding her soul, not her anger, with her search.
However, the writers and director provide an effective conduit for the heart of Philomena’s story to join public outrage. Philomena presents a full, multi-faceted reflection of a woman’s ability to simultaneously be herself and a devoted mother. She doesn’t seek change so much as completion. She genuinely wants to know what happened to her son, to know the unknown of his being snatched from her when she was helpless to hold onto him. Unexpected observations and a surprising understanding come forth from Philomena’s simple persona. Perhaps keeping her secret to herself nurtured seeds of connection with her lost son.
As in life, light and humor lace the objectionable and the ominous in Philomena. We smile no less when she unbuckles her seatbelt to knock on the door of her son’s lover than when she rattles on about an entire book she’s been reading to Martin. Philomena Lee had a bit of a career as a nurse and shows evidence of having been an astute learner. She intuits her son is gay before she’s told. The loving tone of her voice trumps any Catholic reserve. It’s not his sexual identity that would lessen her intent nor stop her search. It’s only if he never thought of her, never wondered about her or where he came from. If there’s a chance to get closer to that truth, she will ask to be heard, be given details, shown photos.
Philomena’s spirit prevails when she and Martin confront the aging Mother Superior, the one who kept mother from son, even as her son sought her in person while he was dying of AIDS. It is Martin who angrily pushes open closed doors to find Sister Hildegaard and demand an answer to the question, “Why?” He wants to know what drove such cruelty. Philomena protests, trying to protect the nun. But Martin presses, hard and angry. The nun’s answer arouses a pathos in Philomena. The nun fiercely denounces a woman’s sexual desire as “sexual incontinence,” equaling moments of passion to an embarrassing loss of bladder control. Perhaps Philomena intuits that the nun has separated herself from a critical source of empathy with other women? As Philomena faces her oppressor, she stands on the other side of a rewarding outcome to her quest. She’s learned, with Martin’s help, that her son remembered her.
Philomena forgives the Mother Superior, but audiences gasp. No hands fly to mouth to muffle outrage. Such a clear vision of cruelty links to a growing momentum in a wider community of men and women who speak out against such opaque, high-minded religious authority.
Though the film suggests Philomena achieves peace of mind after visiting her son’s grave and returns to her ways, it’s not completely true. A conjunctio between the opposites of calm grace and sharp mind has occurred for her and for Sixsmith. The near atheist, Sixsmith, is moved to bring Philomena a small religious statuette to place on her son’s grave and she, grounded in her newfound confidence, tells him a story from a book she’s been reading about a woman who didn’t know she was beautiful.
In fact, in real life, Philomena’s story does continue. She joins a powerful community voice demanding fair laws regarding adoption practices. Philomena is providing a platform for Philomena Lee to be taken seriously in Washington, D.C. as she, at the age of eighty, fights for the rights of adopted children to access records of their biological parents. This is not a Hollywood ending. This ending comes from an evolution of respect rising from a far-reaching circle of women who, like Philomena Lee, have been steadfastly removing the mask of hidden realities that have been hurting girls and women for centuries.
“ …oh, the things I learned from her/When Sorrow walked with me.”
I could end here. But Philomena reminded me of a fairy tale that helped me respect sorrow for its guidance in a time when I was almost defined by it.
In the fairy tale, The Handless Maiden, a young woman whose hands have been sacrificed to the devil to save her father’s mill happens to have the good fortune to marry a king. But when she learns she’s pregnant after her husband leaves for war, the devil returns and using the ignorance of men about women, mixes messages and slanders her name. Tricked by his High Court, the king gives the order to banish his wife from the kingdom. In exile, she gives birth to a son and names him Sorrow. For seven years they live in the woods until one day, Sorrow finds a man sleeping on a wall nearby and, as the tale is told, awakens the man by lifting a handkerchief from his face. When the man visits the child’s home, he finds a surprise. The silver hands he had crafted for his handless wife so many years ago when they married are hanging on the wall. He recognizes Sorrow’s mother as his long-lost wife who he believed had abandoned him. Though she had, in the years intervening, grown her own hands (symbolic for becoming a capable woman in her own right), she had kept the silver hands as a reminder of the king’s love for her. King and Queen are, of course, reunited and Sorrow revealed as an active hope for the future.
Fairy tales always have a moral. Sorrow empowers the young woman and clears the eyes of the mature man, bringing masculine and feminine elements together for a renewal of relationship and a formidable partnership against untoward forces. When the woman holds her own in The Handless Maiden, she gives birth to Sorrow, a spirit of truth capable of removing veils of deceit and promising to play a protective role in generations to come.
In real and cinematic life, Philomena stood fast through strokes of dark fate to emerge as a feminine hero, one who draws upon roots of empathic wisdom for her voice to impact public policy and relieve a baseless suffering known to many. Philomena’s story inspires a new ending for an old fairy tale. Viewers are left with a note of resolve to never fall on the wrong side of love again.
As Philomena liked to say, “I didn’t see that coming.”