Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Philomena: Fact, fantasy and faith

Dame Judi Dench (left) and the real Philomena Lee

Ordinarily, I'd run rather than watch a movie described as "The Best Faith Film You'll See All Year," but Philomena is recently out on DVD, I'm a huge fan of Dame Judi Dench (who turns 80 this year and won an Academy Awards nomination for her performance as the title character) and something seemed slightly amiss in the glowing review. So I watched it Sunday night.

I'd read quite a bit about the film when it premiered --- and watched interviews with the real woman  --- now a gorgeous, witty and wise octogenarian --- whose life inspired both a book (Martin Sixsmith's 2009 The Lost Child of Philomena Lee) and the film. 

As it turns out, Philomena is a beautiful film, well worth watching. Dench's performance is amazing. And the screenplay is a morality tale --- rock-solid faith overcomes adversity (and slaps down an atheist in the nicest possible way). In the faith department as elsewhere in the film, however, quite a bit of artistic license has been exercised.


The screenplay revolves around Philomena, who as a young Irish woman, raised and educated in a convent school after her mother's death and almost entirely innocent in the ways of the world, becomes pregnant during late 1951. At that time --- and I'd guess in some cases today as well --- an unwed mother was declared chief of sinners while the male half of the equation escaped largely unstained. Boys will be boys, you know.

This was not the case just in Ireland or within the context of the Roman Catholic Church, but was almost universal in Christian culture at the time.

Disowned by her father, Philomena was sent to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland, to give birth, then serve out a four-year "sentence" in unpaid service to the nuns in return and as penance. The young mothers there were allowed to spend an hour daily with their children, but encouraged to sign away their parental rights so that the kids could be marketed to "decent" folk, sometimes American, in search of youngsters to adopt. 

The boy Philomena gave birth to, named Anthony, was taken at age 3 without warning from the abbey, adopted by a St. Louis couple and renamed Michael Hess. 

Philomena eventually emerged from the abbey, moved to England, built a successful career for herself as a psychiatric nurse, married twice and had two more children --- but because she had been so deeply shamed waited nearly 50 years to tell anyone other than her first husband about her oldest son.

Both the book and film were launched by the search for Anthony/Michael begun by Philomena and her daughter after she shared the secret.

After considerable effort --- and overcoming roadblocks thrown up by the Sean Ross nuns and the Irish establishment --- the nuns eventually tell Philomena rather clinically that her son is dead. 

Author Sixsmith collaborated with Philomena it tracking down the details of her son's life --- he was a talented lawyer who rose to the post of chief legal counsel to the Republican National Committee in the late 1980s and early 1990s --- and death in America.

They discover that late in life, both before and after he was diagnosed with AIDS, Michael had tried many times to locate his birth mother and had in fact requested that his ashes be buried in the cemetery at Roscrea in Ireland, which he visited at least twice, perhaps in the hope his mother would find his grave, a request honored by his partner, Steve Dahllof, after Michael's death during August of 1995.

The Roscrea nuns, however, stonewalled the son's efforts to find his mother, just as they stonewalled her attempts to locate him.


The Sixsmith book is focused on the life of Anthony Lee/Michael Hess, rather than on Philomena, and apparently suffers from heterosexual preconceptions about gay people prevalent in the 1990s, when it was written, portraying the young man as deeply conflicted. That was not the case at all, according to Dahllof and others who knew him intimately; merely a reflection of the fact it was unwise to trust straight folks too far at that time --- and still is in some cases. Dahllof gave the book a "3" rating on a scale of "10" in the accurate portrayal department.

He gives the film, Philomena, a "10" on "10" rating, however, for accurately capturing the spirit of his late partner --- albeit somewhat distantly.

The same rating probably couldn't be applied when considering the accuracy of the the film's portrayal of Philomena --- although no one is angry or especially unhappy about this. Book author, film producers and Philomena and her family have an amicable relationship, saying that considerable license is required sometimes to create a good story.

The film portrays Philomena as a rather simple "old Irish lady" with a deep faith unshaken by life's disappointments and tragedies --- which makes it in the hands of Judi Dench and other cast members a powerful morality tale. But not an especially accurate overall portrayal of Philomena, a bright and beautiful woman considerably more complex and wiser in the ways of the world than the film's character.

In reality, Philomena lost her faith when she lost her son and did not begin to reconcile with it until after she had shared her secret and begun to actively search for him. 

Today, Philomena says, she is content to light candles and pray, but is not especially devout and neither goes to confession nor takes communion. 

The story of the real Philomena, who when damaged by her church was able to carry on without it, build a new life and then reconcile to a degree with it, probably is more instructive overall than the sweetened screen version.

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