Courageous Search

"Philomena" is an intimate character study of an elderly woman, Philomena (Judi Dench), and her 50-year search for a lost child, a small boy taken from her when she was almost a child herself.

The film also is a study of the inherent contradiction between reflexive religiosity and thoughtless piety, both buttressed by an unyielding moral rectitude, and the pain inflicted upon others owing to a stunning absence of forgiveness, empathy and compassion.

The story of Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears, is an adaptation of the nonfiction book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," written by journalist Martin Sixsmith. The opening scenes show a teenage Philomena at a local Irish fair in the company of a young man. As a result of that one evening, she becomes pregnant. The year is 1952.

As was the case for many unwed women who found themselves with child, the shame for families overwhelming, they were sent to Catholic convents to repent and make amends. For Philomena, it was the Sacred Heart abbey, near the town of Roscrea. And it was there that she gave birth to her child, Anthony.

The mothers were only allowed to see their children one hour each day; the rest of the time they worked in the convent laundry. The pain of childbirth and the four years the girls were required to labor, post-birth, were viewed by the nuns as small penance for their carnal sins.

During the third year, an affluent American couple arrives at the convent, and Philomena watches in horror as little Anthony is driven away, never to return. It is a wrenching, heartbreaking moment, and one that Philomena will carry with her for the rest of her life.

And so begins the improbable story of Philomena, who, after a half-century, decides, with the reluctant aid of an out-of-work journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), she must find her now-grown son. She has lived in silence and passivity long enough. And so begins a touching, humorous road trip with two people who are both compatible and incompatible. Martin is driven by what he hopes will be a compelling human-interest story that will return him to his prior status as a respected newsman. Philomena is filled with a consuming hope, constructed from decades of wrenching memories and a small photograph of Anthony, barely 3.

As a result of Martin's research, they travel to Washington, D.C., where it is believed Anthony worked in government as a lawyer. As they peel away the layers of Anthony's life, the film takes on an urgency and a touching humanity, with unexpected twists.

What makes "Philomena" a remarkable film is not only the story of a tenacious woman seeking an elusive redemption for her original sin, compounded by what she believes is her complicity in allowing her small son to be taken from her (actually the babies and small children were sold by the nuns, Anthony for $1,000), but that said story is presented absent sentimentality.

Anchoring the narrative is the nuanced performance of Dench, who transforms herself from the steely "M" in the James Bond series, to a very average woman — even a bit frumpy — who is a retired nurse and is, at least initially, judged harshly by Martin. However, the journalist, a bit arrogant and elitist, soon learns that beneath Philomena's patina of genuine kindness and stubborn faith, is a woman of insight and courage.

"Philomena" is a quiet demonstration that when push comes to shove, great movies involve moving stories that ponder the human condition in all its varied forms. It not only exposes the hollowness of the Catholic Church's teaching of mercy and love, but asks how Philomena can still embrace the church after her horrific experience and still utter the words to a desiccated nun, "I forgive you." Clearly Martin can't.

Tangentially, in 2002, Peter Mullin released the film, "The Magdalene Sisters," a documentary that focused on four teenage girls sent to the Magdalene asylums where they were, in effect, incarcerated. As was Philomena. These asylums for "fallen" girls, as they were called, were operated by the Catholic Church throughout Ireland during the early '50s and well into the '60s, and according to those who were inmates, so to speak, the abuse was both physical and psychological in the extreme, crafted by nuns steeped in an astonishingly cruel righteousness.

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