Few films treat religion at all, and most that do, treat it with disdain or humor, while some use it to promote a certain religious belief. Stephen Frears’s new film, Philomena, is one of the rare films that takes religion seriously and walks a fine line between criticizing it and acknowledging its goodness.
The screenplay, Dench’s typically fine acting and Frears’ direction make this a fine film that avoids sentimentality and steers clear of preaching a certain message.
The film is based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, which tells the true story of Philomena Lee's 50-year-long search for her son. Steve Coogan, who cowrote the screenplay, plays Sixsmith, a journalist who has just lost his job as a Labor government adviser and is at sea about what to do next. Then a woman approaches him to talk about her mother, who gave birth to her son Anthony at the convent in Roscrea, Ireland, and was forced to sign away parental rights to her son—but still cared for him until he was adopted at age three—and worked as an indentured laundry lady.
Eventually, Martin agrees to write a human-interest story, and he and Philomena (Judi Dench) begin their search for her son. In flashbacks, the film shows young Philomena giving birth, then working in the convent and being allowed to see her son one hour each day. Her anguish when the boy is adopted has stayed within her, held at bay, for 50 years. She approaches this search timidly, not wanting to offend the Catholic church, which she remains devoted to.
Martin, on the other hand, grew up Catholic and has long since left the church and converted to atheism. He is vocal about his criticisms of the church and the Christian faith, though he lets up when he sees that Philomena is not in agreement with him.
They visit the convent, where the nuns tell them the adoption records were lost in a fire. Later, Martin hears that the convent deliberately destroyed the records in a bonfire and had sold the children to adoptive parents, mostly in the United States.
Through his previous work, Martin has contacts in the United States. He learns that Philomena’s son had been adopted by Doc and Marge Hess, who renamed him Michael Hess. He grew up to be a high-ranking official in the Reagan administration. He was also gay, and closeted because the Republican Party was “rabidly homophobic,” according to one character. He had died nine years earlier of AIDS.
Philomena had longed to know if her son ever thought of her, and it looks like she’ll never know. They eventually locate Michael's most serious boyfriend, however, and he tells them Michael is buried in the convent’s cemetery back in Ireland.
Throughout their search, Martin’s knowing, secular, unsociable self contrasts with Philomena’s naïve, Catholic, gregarious sensibility. On several occasions they have discussions about religion, and Philomena, the one most hurt by the church, is more at peace than Martin. This comes to a head in a climactic scene.
The screenplay, Dench’s typically fine acting, and Frears’s direction make this a fine film that avoids sentimentality and steers clear of preaching a certain message. And its handling of religion is remarkably evenhanded.