Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) worked for the BBC, until he was forced to quit. While considering writing a book on Russian history and trying to determine what to do with his life, he is approached by the daughter of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). Philomena’s daughter suggests to Martin that he write about her mother’s story of a child taken from her while she was at a convent in Rosecrea, Ireland.
When she was young, Philomena had met a man at a county fair and became pregnant by him. Her father sent her to the convent to live. The sisters at the convent were very strict. Hard work and painful childbirth were the penance for the girls’ sins. No anesthetic was given during childbirth. No special medical attention was given for breech births. Often, girls as young as 14 died while giving birth. The mothers and their babies were buried in a cemetery on the convent grounds. If the baby did survive, it was often adopted out to couples – often from America, without the mother’s consent. Philomena’s son, Anthony, was one of those who survived and was adopted out, without her having a chance to say goodbye.
After hearing the story, Martin reluctantly agrees to help investigate what happened to Anthony. The nuns at the convent were of no help, as the records had all been destroyed in a fire many years ago. Also, most of the sisters who were at the convent while Philomena was there, some 50 years ago, have either died or are aging and in no position to talk to Martin.
Martin and Philomena continue their search for Anthony, determined to get answers. Their search leads them to America, where they finally begin to make progress.
Philomena is based on the true story of Philomena Lee and her son who was taken from her. This makes the story all that more heartbreaking. Thousands of babies from this convent were sold to American couples, with no information given to the parents. The story of the treatment of these young girls at the convent is almost unbearable.
Judi Dench is amazing in this film. As is to be expected. There is such sadness and pain in her face when she is thinking of her missing son. Yet, when the moment calls for it, she can add just the right touch of humor. It is no surprise she is up for an Oscar for this role. Steve Coogan, is no slouch, either. You can feel his characters change from not wanting to be involved in a human interest story, to really caring about Philomena and her search.
As with all true stories, I’m sure the script takes a few liberties with the story. But the basis of the story is so unbelievable, and the performances are so good. It is one of those movies, much like 12 Years a Slave, that it really makes you feel what the characters went through.
I’m happy that this year’s Oscar nominees, unlike many in years past, aren’t a bunch of out there films, that you won’t mind sitting through them. Philomena is definitely one you will want to see.