Philomena received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress: Judi Dench, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score.
One who is persistent continues firmly and strongly in a course of action, no matter the risk or difficulty. This is Philomena Lee. Journalist Martin Sixsmith, who was reluctant about writing a human-interest story, first told Philomena’s story. Sixsmith would later publish the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.
The film Philomena is based on that book.
Judi Dench, one of the greatest actresses of our time, portrays the aging mother in search for her biological son. Philomena’s story begins as a teenager when at one moment of weakness with a young man lands her in a home run by a collection of nuns. There she gives birth to her son, and watches powerlessly as an American couple takes him home.
For fifty years she wonders what happened to her son Anthony. On the occasion of his 50th birthday, Philomena seems unable to shake the desire to find out what happened to him. She returns to the nuns to inquire, but they tell her that they have no information on him. She doesn’t let go though. She remains persistent. This is when she meets Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Martin had recently lost his government official job due to a scandal. Reluctant to do a human-interest story, he does it in an effort to turn his image.
The two embark on a journey to the United States in search for Anthony. The journey is very much the frame of the story. And like all great journey stories, both characters learn a lot about each other and about themselves. It is a challenging journey because Martin and Philomena are two completely different people, age difference aside.
Philomena favors romance novels, while Martin prefers a more intellectual read. Philomena is not well traveled, resulting in her being awed by such wonders as the waffle maker at a Washington, D. C. hotel. Martin, a former government official, doesn’t see the wonder in such minor details. But perhaps the biggest difference is religion. Philomena is deeply religious, making Martin stop on the side of a rural road in Virginia so that she can go to confession. While Martin is not religious and does not see the reason for it.
Philomena: Do you believe in God?
Martin: Difficult to give a simple answer.
The two learn that the nuns were selling the teenage girls’ babies to wealthy Americans. They are able to track Anthony down, who was raised as Mike Hess and worked in the Regan administration. As they uncover the truth (I don’t want to spoil it for you) about Hess, Martin seems surprised and worried about how Philomena will respond. “I knew that,” she said.
Philomena has Martin stop the car at a rural Virginia church so that she can go to confession. “What I had done was a sin. Not telling people was a sin. Which was the greater sin of the two?” Philomena wonders aloud, still struggling with guilt of having sex as a teenager. Martin argues that she does not need to ask for forgiveness, the church needs to ask for forgiveness. Martin reasons that what the church did to her was unjust. “You don’t need religion to be happy,” Martin says.
And that scene sums up the struggle that both Philomena and Martin face, and so many of us, with religion. Institutional religion has good days and it has bad days. On the good it is just, on the bad it is unjust. Through the centuries, we know that this is true. Martin recognizes that outsiders, like himself, look into the church and see the injustice, while those on the inside, like the nuns, cannot and are not willing to change. Philomena knows the reality of institutional injustice because she has been on the receiving end of the injustice of the institution. However, she does not stop believing in God. She is faithful. She is persistent.
Jesus tells the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18). In the story, the persistent widow seeks the judge to ask for justice. We are not told the reason for the cries of justice, just that the widow is persistent. The judge, worn down by the nagging, finally agrees to give her justice.
The story implies that disciples, or followers of Christ, are to be persistent in their prayer life, while also seeking justice. Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, Luke uses the encounter between Jesus and the sisters Martha and Mary to illustrate the importance of balance in our lives. A balance of being with Jesus (Mary) and doing for Jesus (Martha) is necessary. Philomena represents this balance. While she is persistently seeking her son and justice for the wrong that was done to her, she is persistently faithful to her God.
And because Philomena has found this balance, she is able to forgive when others find it too difficult. When Philomena and Martin return to the nuns to find the truth about her son, Martin is angry with the nuns for what they had done. He sneaks through the building to find the one remaining nun from when Philomena was a teenager to demand some answers. In the heat of this powerful scene, the nun refuses to acknowledge that she did anything wrong, making Martin more angry, telling her that if Jesus was present, he would push her out of her wheelchair, clearly drawing on the image of Jesus turning over the moneychangers’ tables.
Philomena, on the other hand, forgives the nun. Philomena becomes the only one who is willing to welcome change, and it begins with forgiveness.
The film is possibly one of Judi Dench’s best films. Dench is fabulous in this role. At the time of filming, Dench was 79 and slowly going blind. The director chose so many times to fill the screen with Dench’s face, even when she had no speaking part. By doing so, we can appropriate more the complexities of Philomena.
Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay, gives a commanding performance. Possibly one of his best. He manages to balance the humor with the intensity of accompanying Philomena on this journey. Both Dench and Coogan should be recognized by the Academy.