With Time Comes Forgiveness: A Review of Stephen Frears’s Philomena

Stephen Frears’s Philomena, is a film based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a historical account, by Martin Sixsmith ( a BBC journalist) of an event in the life of Philomena Lee, an Irish citizen.  The film stars Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith. The film chronicles a time in history in Ireland in which pregnant teenagers were forced to both live and labor in a convent in exchange for the convent caring for them and for their children.  The film is as much about telling a story that must be told as it is about forgiveness.  This film is about children ripped from their mothers, about unmerciful behaviors, and about an era of which I’m sure that the Catholic Church in Ireland is abashed.  The film chronicles the sentiments of these teenage mothers in the convent. As I ruminate on the events in the film, I  wonder how I would have felt about this issue if I were alive in 1940.  I know that the Bible says “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” I would like to think that my attitude then would be as it is now, but the truth is that we are all products of our environments.  Because teen pregnancy was not rampant then, forgiving the behavior in its historical context is not difficult; however, the nuns’ words and thoughts coupled with their actions are reprehensible. Illustrative of this objectionable behavior is when an elderly nun emphatically believes that Philomena received the punishment she was due, fifty years later.  Fifty years later, the nun has remained steadfast in her position.  Many of us change our views as we grow and develop, but some of us hold to our conservative views.  I wonder how the nun would feel knowing that millions of women today have had abortions rather than risk the public shame by society for becoming pregnant.

The children of the pregnant teens after reaching several years of age were adopted by American families without the approval of the mothers.  The pregnant teens were forced to sign documents stating that they would not inquire about the whereabouts of their children or question the convent regarding the adoption proceedings. As the film opens, Philomena is reminiscing about her son who would be fifty years old on that day.  She never spoke about her son to anyone, never inquired about him, and her grown daughter never knew he existed.  in the beginning scenes of the film, a young Philomena, played by Sophie Kennedy Clark, begins a relationship with a boy with whom she soon falls passionately in love. She is naïve and lacks sophistication regarding unprotected sex and pregnancy.   She does not see her act of fornication as “dirty” or wrong, but as an act of love.  After conceiving a child, she is sent to the convent where she tells the nuns that she had no previous knowledge about “the birds and the bees”.  They regard her incredulously, and one of the nuns states that Philomena’s lack of knowledge is likely true. When Philomena is in labor, the Catholic midwife determines that the baby is breached and that they need to call for a doctor.  At that point In the drama, one of the nuns forbids the midwife from requesting a doctor.  She says that if the baby dies, it is the penance that Philomena must pay for her sins.  Fortunately, the midwife is able to redirect the position of the baby, and a normal delivery ensues. The scene in which the nun refuses to call a doctor is horrifying. I saw the total disdain and lack of mercy that these nuns had for those who have made mistakes with serious consequences.  I could feel the contempt not only through their language but through their countenance.  These nuns actually believed that a baby born out of wedlock deserved to die because of the sin of the mother.  The new mothers were only allowed to spend one hour a day with their babies who soon became toddlers.  Philomena’s child was adopted when he was five.  The scene when he and another child with whom he bonded were adopted by an American family was deeply emotionally poignant.  I could feel Philomena’s pain as she stood helpless to stop the adoption.  For a mother to have her child involuntarily taken away from her has to be one of the most difficult events in a mother’s life. At the time of the adoption, none of the mothers knew that their children were adopted by American families.

Through the help of Philomena’s daughter, Philimena meets Sixsmith, who agrees to help her in her quest for her son. Through his investigative journalism, Sixsmith finds out that Philomena’s son is deceased, worked for a former president, was in a committed gay relationship, and died of AIDS.  Researching the information was not easy because the convent had destroyed all the records regarding the adoptions and those nuns who had knowledge of the events were all deceased except for one.  Philomena and Sixsmith both try to contact Philomena’s son’s partner.  He is not immediately forthcoming regarding information; however, he does tell Philomena that her son tried to look for her before his death.  Her son went to the convent in Ireland, and was told by the nuns that they had no knowledge of Philomena’s whereabouts.  He died stripped of his right to meet the woman by whom he was given life.  With the knowledge that Philomena has, she is at a crossroad.

At this juncture in the film, Philomena makes a conscious decision to forgive the nuns at the convent.  Sixsmith, however, refuses to forgive them. Philomena recognizes that a lack of forgiveness will paralyze her and that it will impede her development and growth.  This film causes me to reflect on current events in our history in which people have forgiven the actions of those who have committed grievous wrongs against them.  Although, greatly difficult, forgiveness is a Biblical mandate.  We must “forgive those who have trespassed against us.”  Seeing forgiveness at this level is rare and must be applauded. When the real Philomena appeared on stage with Steve Coogan at the Golden Globe Awards, I could not help but be proud that I knew who she was and that she was indicative of greatness.

Judi Dench is superb in this role.  She along with Coogan have a few potent scenes that captivate the viewer.  The film is less than 100 minutes; thus, it is succinct and to the point.  The editors included only what was essential in the telling of this drama.  Dench is nominated for an Academy Award for her role in this film.  I doubt that she will win, (she is up against Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine) but whether she wins or not, does not in any way diminish the strength of the story filmed.

Philomena Lee  must be a woman of great courage and compassion to have desired to bring this story to the world by sharing an immensely personal story.  As a result of Sixsmith’s willingness to write a human interest story, many more women will have the courage to share their stories of shame and heartache. Kudos to Lee, Sixsmith and Frears, the director.

Four weeks until Ellen Degeneres engages us with her humor at the Oscars.  In my next blog, I’ll make some Oscar predictions.  Comments are welcome.

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