There’s been a lot of talk about this film directed by Stephen Frears, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.
First of all the acting is excellent, the most complimentary thing I can say is I forgot who the stars were and accepted them as Philomena Lee, whose baby had been taken from her when he was a toddler, and the journalist Martin Sixsmith who came on the story at a time when he was out of work and fighting for his reputation.
A story of coincidence if you believe there is such a thing which I don’t, but the fact is in 2004 Sixsmith meets Jane, a young women whose mother has just shared a secret with her – she has an illegitimate brother.
The journalist is fascinated by the story, not the usual material for this political man, Labour Party adviser during the Blair era, banished over the ‘burying bad news’ affair who was intent on writing a book on Russian history in his ‘retirement’. However, he agrees to meet Philomena.
She tells him how she gave birth out of wedlock, the ultimate sin in rural Ireland and the shame of being banished to Roscrea Convent in Tipperary. Her baby son, three years of age, then taken from her and sold to an American couple by the nuns.
For over 50 years she has tried to find the boy without success so she agrees that the investigative journalist should try on her behalf.
The human interest story he despises so much becomes his reason d’etre .
Over the next five years his research path leads him along with Philomena to America and a couple called Hess from St. Louis Missouri. Although they had a family of boys, they wanted a girl and when meeting with little three year old Mary at Roscrea they also met her best friend five year old Anthony, The Hess couple must have been kind as they didn’t want to split the two little people so adopted them both. The scene where Philomena discovers her son wasn’t in the nursery was heart stopping and dreadfully sad when she ran to the window only to see his little face peering out the back window of the car unable to hear her cries as they drive away.
She didn’t have the £100 to buy herself out of the convent so she remained there for the statutory three years working in the kitchens and the laundry. She’d signed papers to allow the sisters to give up her child for adoption, for them that was the end of it but not for her, she kept trying, eventually with results, not perfect but at least a conclusion to her search.
Philomena and Sixsmith’s journey takes them to the heart of Washington where they discover Anthony had been chief legal counsel to President George Bush Senior. Did he ever wonder about his mother? Did he know she went to Liverpool, married and had two children and worked for many years as a nurse? Perhaps!
Still alive today, Philomena Lee is obviously a well rounded character, funny, reasoning, sensitive and attractive. Sixsmith himself grew very found of her yet irritated by her decisions sometimes to give up the search, other times to go the extra mile, her faith and his questions but she had the wonderful ability to win him round with her maybe not so innocent humour!
This film exposes a scandal, the power of investigative journalism and a determination to get answers. I’m not surprised those involved have won awards. A thoughtful, well acted, well directed film and being a true story brings it into a special place of its own.
See it if you can.
Check out all Anne Hailes reviews for Belfast Times here.