Watch: Philomena

Arts & Culture

Directed by Stephen Frears (The Weinstein Company, 2013)

Philomena, Stephen Frears’ touching film about the quest of an elderly Irish woman to find the baby she was forced to give up 50 years before, is a tale of redemption that is capable of restoring anyone’s faith in ordinary and broken human beings. In this odd-couple odyssey, a discredited BBC journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) agrees to write a human interest piece about Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who is desperately looking for her son Anthony, taken from her in the 1950s while she was pressed into entering a “convent” for wayward young women who had children out of wedlock.

Together the cynical journalist and Philomena set out to locate her now middle-aged child, hoping to discover if Anthony, wherever he is, ever gives a thought to the mother who has thought of him every day for the past five decades. Their journey, which begins with a fruitless attempt to get information from the sisters who ran the convent (and who conveniently lost all the relevant records in a prearranged fire), soon takes them to America, where Martin's professional and political connections help them uncover the trail of Anthony’s adoption by a wealthy U.S. couple.

In this journey full of heartbreaking and heartwarming discoveries, Philomena and Martin struggle with institutions bent on keeping secrets, wrestle with their own passions and prejudices, and fight with each other about faith in God and forgiveness for those who have harmed them. The atheistic journalist is often impatient with what he sees as Philomena’s naïveté and childish faith, while this tough old lady is equally critical of the reporter’s anger and cynicism. And at the end of the journey, we discover that redemption is achieved when we learn to recognize and respect the humanity of people others have thought of as fallen and disgraced. The God who taught Philomena to forgive is worth believing in.

This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 2, page 50).