This was a film I’d been wanting to see for ages, though I missed it on release at the cinemas, as I’d been following the clerical abuse stories coming from Ireland over the last couple of years but hadn’t seen this particular story. The film version has taken some liberties with the facts (there is no joint road trip to the USA) but the changes look, to me, a justified ‘streamlining’ of the narrative, without materially altering the important facts of the case or unfairly maligning anyone.
Martin Sixsmith (played here by Steve Coogan) was an ex-news reporter who had been working for the government as a spin-doctor before a briefing scandal forced him to resign. Looking around for something to write about, he is initially dismissive of the dreaded ‘human interest’ story until he is persuaded to meet Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and the nature of the abuse she suffered, and the resultant problem she faced. Philomena got pregnant as a (-n unmarried) teen and, in the Ireland of 1951, this meant that her options are limited to one. She must work in the dreaded Magdalene laundries, effectively as a slave, and with limited contact with her child. After four years, she finds that her son has been given up for adoption, without her knowledge or consent. Returning to her family, Philomena carried on her life, her later husband and further children knowing nothing about her lost son.
On what would have been his fiftieth birthday, Philomena contacts Sixsmith through her daughter and tells him the story, which we see in flashback, and the pair team up to find what has happened to the lost child. Visiting the convent, they are told by the nuns that the records no longer exist because of a ‘big fire’ but, at the local pub, they are advised that the ‘big fire’ was limited solely to the records that had been deliberately destroyed to cover up an illegal (and hugely unethical) adoption service – effectively, the nuns were selling illegitimate babies to rich and childless Americans. Sixsmith quickly and fortuitously find the identity of the child and they travel to the States to find out what they can about what happened to him.
In turns hilarious, moving and enraging, this is a beautifully told story that cannot easily be dismissed as ‘Catholic bashing’, the usual easy retort whenever yet another scandal of the Catholic church in Ireland is exposed to public view; Philomena herself has remained a staunch Catholic, managing a forgiveness for the perpetrators of the inhuman regime she suffered that eludes me and, if I’m honest, I think is morally wrong. The people who carried out these acts and enabled such barbarities should not be forgiven.