Martin Sixsmith is in a funk.
He's a former BBC correspondent who made an ill-advised foray into politics, taking a staff position with a prominent politician. Then, out of the blue, he found himself in the middle of a scandal not of his own making. And he was quickly sacked.
Now he's wrestling with the idea of finding something else to do. He's thinking of writing a book. Too bad his idea of exploring a particular facet of Russian history evokes nothing but blank stares and yawns when he brings it up in mixed company. But maybe that waitress at the party he attended recently had a good idea. Whilst he was seeking out a glass of Pinot Grigio, she suggested he write something about her mother—a woman who had her baby taken away from her some 50 years ago.
No, that'll never do. It's a human interest story, after all. Human interest stories are for "vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people," he chortles.
As he ruminates on the tale later, though, it does seem to have a little merit. Back in the '50s, an Irish-Catholic girl got pregnant and was banished to the Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary, Ireland, where nuns abused her and eventually sold off her son for £1,000. All these years later the now elderly woman still feels the pain of that loss, the ache of not knowing what happened to her boy.
Evil nuns, an agonizing birth, a tortured young women. This is all good stuff … from a story perspective, Sixsmith starts thinking. Maybe he ought to meet the woman. What was her name? Ah, yes, Philomena Lee. He might actually be able to get an article or two out of this one. You know, really get the masses to tear up. It could even be a book.
He'll just have to dig up that young waitress's number. Hmmm, and maybe apologize for that "weak-minded, ignorant people" quip.
Sixsmith does apologize, but Philomena and her daughter, Jane, aren't as concerned with his nose-in-the-air acerbity as they are overjoyed with the possibility of finally having someone with connections get their story out there. And as they collaborate, Sixsmith becomes something of a lightly sarcastic, atheistic foil to Philomena—a woman defined by her sincerity, her hope, her longing to know the truth and her earnest faith in God. (Much more on that later.)
Philomena is also the kind of person who chooses to see the best in everybody she meets. She loves to chat with everyone around her and often calls people "one-in-a-million"—something Sixsmith can't help but roll his eyes over. But the two opposites grow closer on their journey of discovery, even to the point where Philomena feels able to ask him to soften his tone with some people. Once she requests that he be nicer to the restaurant staff serving them: "I'd rather you be rude to me then these lovely people here." She also says, "You should be nice to people on the way up because you might meet them again on the way down." And later she asks that he give a group of nuns (even though they are obviously duplicitous and self-serving) a bit more grace and respect.
[Spoiler Warning] Philomena's crowning moment of grace involves her telling the cruel and heartlessly legalistic (and still unrepentant) nun who misused her all those years ago, "I want you to know, I forgive you." Sixsmith is predictably aghast and asks how she could do that so easily. Philomena replies, "Who said it was easy?" Then she proclaims, "But I don't want to hate people. I don't want to be like you."
We see growth in Sixsmith along the way too, for the record. We see that there is indeed a tender, caring man at the core of this world-wise and oh-so-weary journalist. And we see him come to care quite a lot for Philomena and her friendly demeanor.
Philomena's ability to forgive is driven, of course, by her faith and firm grasp on God's forgiveness for her. She clings to that grace, especially since she feels so guilty for losing her son when she was so young. We see her on her knees praying repeatedly for answers and strength. She lights a candle in church and dips her fingers in holy water before crossing herself. She wears a cross and hangs a St. Christopher medal on the mirror of a rental car. Even after she hits rock bottom and briefly finds herself unable to talk with God or confess her sins, she eventually turns back to His spiritual embrace and the spiritual comfort she's known all her life.
Martin Sixsmith, meanwhile, resents, even hates the church. "It's the Catholic church that should go to confession, not you," he tells Philomena. "Do you believe in God?" she asks him. He replies, "I've always thought that was a difficult question to give a simple answer to." Then he lobs the question back at her. "Do you?" he says. Her reply? "Yes." When she quotes Jesus words from John 20:29, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed," he spits, "Hooray for blind faith and ignorance."
By movie's end, however, we see that Philomena's abject faith has at least softened Sixsmith in his attitudes toward those who believe—if not toward the church itself.
A 15- or 16-year-old Philomena is wooed by a young man at a county fair. We see them embrace and kiss. Their further sexual interactions are only spoken of, however, when Abbey nuns harshly (and specifically) interrogate the now pregnant Philomena about her "indecent" actions. Sixsmith's reaction? He snarls out his irritation that a "loving God" might create something so pleasurable, then punish people if they don't abstain from enjoying it.
[Spoiler Warning] We eventually find out that Philomena's son adopted a gay lifestyle and died from AIDS. Philomena isn't surprised by this revelation, stating that she "always knew" her 3-year-old was "sensitive" and therefore likely gay. We see him as an adult sharing a quick kiss with his partner while hugging and cuddling. Philomena matter-of-factly talks about gay men preferring not to use condoms.
We watch as Philomena goes through a very painful childbirth. And we hear one of the nuns say that the "pain is her penance." It's intimated that more of the girls died during childbirth than should have due to the nuns' negligence.
Crude or Profane Language
Two f-words (and an additional two Irish derivatives of the word, "fecking"). Two s-words (one pronounced in the American way, the other more Irish). Those are joined by the crude colloquialisms "t-ts up" and "bloody."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Philomena and Sixsmith drink bottles of alcohol from the mini-fridges in their hotel rooms. Sixsmith and a number of other guests drink wine and mixed drinks at a party. We often see him with a tall glass of beer at hand.
Other Negative Elements
Sixsmith calls them the "Sisters of Little Mercy." And, indeed, all but one nun at the Sean Ross Abbey in the 1950s are depicted as mean and cruel souls who subject young "fallen" women to slave labor while selling the girls' "ill-gotten" children to make money for the church. Even later, modern-day nuns act duplicitously—lying and burning records to cover up the Abbey's past.
There's a indiscrete joke cracked about stool samples. There's a sideways plug given for the crass-and-crude movie Big Momma's House.
Philomena indulges in some unseemly language as it ponders (and not always astutely) the heavy subjects of classism, prejudice against homosexuality and the abuse of young women by religious authority figures. It simultaneously plumbs the depths of forgiveness and the ability of sincere faith to stand up to cruelty and whittle away at the hardness of the world around us. It's an emotional film of longing and friendship, loss and hope.
In other words, it's a human interest story.
And it is actually "inspired by real events," as the opening credits tell us. Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, written by Martin Sixsmith, a journalist for the BBC in real life, just as he is/was in the movie. While Sixsmith himself might pooh-pooh such "sappy drivel," we all have much to learn from one another, an endeavor this film calculatingly tries to help us with.
But it also lets linger a lasting hatred for the Catholic church, an attitude that sometimes edges out beyond a reasonable outrage over specific misdeeds in its past. And that prompted New York Post reviewer Kyle Smith to write, "This is a diabolical-Catholics film, straight up. … A film that is half as harsh on Judaism or Islam, of course, wouldn't be made in the first place but would be universally reviled if it were. Philomena is a sucker punch, or maybe a sugary slice of arsenic cake."
Is it outright poison, then? The Irish Times reports that "the congregation ran the mother-and-baby home between 1930 and its closure in 1970. Its spokeswoman Sr Julie Rose said: 'In those days, the options open to single mothers were very restricted. Adoption by a family who could take care of the child was often seen as the best outcome.'"
And Philomena Lee herself decided to respond to Smith's negative appraisal. According to Deadline Hollywood, she wrote an open letter to the film critic, saying, "Your review of the movie paints its story as being a condemnation of Catholicism and conservative views. It states that the relationship depicted between Mr. Martin Sixsmith and myself comes across as contrived and trite, and funny for all the wrong reasons. Forgive me for saying so, Kyle, but you are incorrect. What Stephen Frears did with Martin's book is something extraordinary and quite real. … The story it tells has resonated with people not because it's some mockery of ideas or institutions that they're in disagreement with. This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith."
It is, of course, quite difficult to parse the intent of the director, Frears, and scriptwriter Steve Coogan. When the true story tells of nuns who "sold" the babies of young mothers, a movie about that subject will almost necessarily feel like an attack on the larger Catholic church. Some will respond by wishing the whole matter could just be set aside and we all move on quickly. Others will see the value of exposure and the cleansing that can happen in its wake.
There's no question that Martin tears into the nuns in an obscene way, even evoking a hurtful (and flippant) reference to Jesus while doing so. But there's also no denying that the movie gives equal time and perhaps even more weight to Philomena's steadfast determination to forgive and see the best in everyone, even (and especially) the nuns.
So as for the issue of faith and the church, how you feel about those things when the final credits roll (and what you are inspired by, for good or for ill) will have a lot to do with who you most identify with: a grace-filled and forgiving elderly Irish woman or a jaded journalist consumed with (human) logic above all.
A postscript: Philomena was originally assigned an R rating by the MPAA, which noted "some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references." The rating was then downgraded to PG-13 on appeal from The Weinstein Company, after the studio successfully argued that dialogue context matters more than the number or intensity of obscenities.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Steve Coogan, the film's co-lead and screenwriter, told the ratings board, "When my character uses profanity in Philomena it reflects badly on his character. It's not a glorification of the profanity, as it is in the other films. Ours are used very notably for a reason. They are uttered by my character to demonstrate his short temper and somewhat volatile nature—his anger. That stands in stark contrast to Judi Dench's character, who has grace and dignity."
He expressed his concern that an R rating might be too high a hurdle for the very moviegoers most predisposed to what the Times characterized as "a strong message about faith and forgiveness that could appeal to religious moviegoers."