A review by Brenda Daniels
Philomena, starring Dame Judi Dench in the title role, is a drama based on a true story. Its plot revolves around Irishwoman Philomena Lee’s search for her son, adopted when he was just four. Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former British Labour Party member, writes her story and helps her in her search.
The story was eventually published (in real life) and revealed the shocking practice of a Catholic convent’s cruelty towards unwed mothers and their babies during the 1950s.
Philomena is played by two actresses – Sophie Kennedy Clark as the young Philomena and Dench as the 70-year-old Philomena. Philomena, along with other young women like herself, was sent to a convent in Roscrea, Tipperary, as penance for falling pregnant out of wedlock. Here the girls are made to work hard and allowed to see their children for only an hour a day.
Gradually, the children mysteriously disappear, ostensibly adopted by wealthy couples, without the mothers’ permissions.
Having always longed to find her son, Philomena, now 70, accidentally comes across Sixsmith, who she enlists to write her story. Martin is a typically cynical journalist, more so because he was recently “given the sack”.
Philomena is a simple, forgiving Irish woman with a firm Catholic faith despite the startling cruelty the convent meted out to her. The two characters and their differing reactions to events create the tension – and humour – in the story.
The pair’s search takes them to the USA where they find traces of Anthony (Philomena’s name for her son) or Michael (as he was renamed). It is while in the USA that the story takes a revealing turn, sending Philomena and Sixsmith back to the Irish convent where their investigations first began.
Despite physically speaking to people in America, I thought Martin and Philomena’s visit to the States a bit unrealistic, given today’s worldwide web search capabilities. I also found the penultimate scene in the film a puzzling one. It at once reveals Philomena’s poignant grace and takes the oomph out of an otherwise beautifully told, very touching story.
Philomena is rated 13L, runs for one and a half hours and opened at NuMetro theatres in South Africa on 28 March.