Arts & crafts

Philomena: a compelling story based on true events

12 Jul 2022 | Written by By Carolyn O'Donnell

For our next Film Club meeting on Friday 15th July, we will be chatting about Philomena – a 2013 ‘tragi-comedy’ film based on the 2009 novel The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith. Whether you’ve seen the film years ago or you’re considering watching it and coming along, Carolyn O’Donnell has a flavour of what to expect…

Philomena (2013) is a moving film about a remarkably forgiving Irish woman’s five-decade
search for the baby who was taken from her. A motherless teenager with no sex education,
Philomena was seduced by a young man at a fair to fall pregnant without even knowing the
consequences of what she was doing.

There was considerable shame around pregnancies out of wedlock in 1950s Ireland, and
Philomena was packed off to a convent by a father who wanted nothing more to do with her.
Realising there was money to be made from abandoned unwed mothers, the convent
ruthlessly exploited them. Working seven days a week for years in one of the Magdalene
Laundries for “fallen” women to pay off her “debt”, Philomena and others like her were cruelly allowed daily contact with their babies until wealthy American couples gave the convent substantial amounts of money to take the children away for adoption.

This may sound like overbaked melodrama, but the film was inspired by a true story. The Lost Child of Philomena Lee was written by Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist. Discovering Philomena’s plight by chance and being at a loose end since dismissal as a media advisor by the Labour Government, he decided to investigate her story. He later collaborated on a documentary about the Irish Catholic Church sending babies abroad.

Philomena is a quest with almost unbearable sadness at its core. The Oxford-educated Sixsmith is initially quite a cold fellow, more notable for his cynicism and arrogance than his compassion, and Philomena is not particularly worldly – she is sweetly excited by bathrobes in a hotel room. She’s exactly the kind of person Sixsmith would normally dismiss. But even he eventually comes to value the strength of her quiet integrity and generous heart.

The Catholic Church does not come out of this story well, its actions characterised as secretive, mercenary and vengeful. One scene takes in the graves of teenage girls who died giving birth, one being only 14. The Church made a business out of leveraging guilt and shame, and there is an interesting contrast between Sixsmith’s atheism, which dovetails with Coogan’s own feelings about his Catholic upbringing, and Philomena’s strong, dignified faith. Films about crimes committed by the Catholic Church are not new, but this is an intensely personal tale about love being more powerful than secrets, lies, or the burning desire to punish.

Despite the serious subject matter, Stephen Frears – who also helmed The Queen (2006)
starring Helen Mirren – directs with a sure touch and there are many comedic moments,
thanks to the chemistry between the lead actors. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Judi Dench's portrayal of Philomena, and her compelling performance is the emotional core of the film.

Steve Coogan, probably still best known as bumbling Alan Patridge, plays Sixsmith with an
understated acerbic edge and a determination to make the “evil nuns” come clean. Coogan,
who also co-wrote and produced, was “moved” to tell Philomena’s story after reading an article.

The film is also about Sixsmith, atoning for grubby dealings in the political sphere. While journalists can be predatory, it’s Sixsmith’s skills and determination that mean Philomena finally obtains some kind of peace. When the mismatched pair do find Philomena’s son there are a few surprises in store as the little Irish boy developed into an accomplished American man.

Philomena is a very British production – even when the characters decamp to the US. It tells a powerful story, depicting it with sensitivity and restraint. There are no pounding crescendos of music during major plot points, but it’s beautifully told and will stay with you long after the credits roll.

If you have seen the film or plan to watch it (click here to watch it on BBC iPlayer), we’d love to hear your thoughts. Join us on Friday 15th July at 1pm to share your thoughts and hear what opinions other members have about the film.

Find out more and book your place here

A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.

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