In 1952, a naive Irish teenager named Philomena Lee met an attractive boy at the fair and had sex with him. Later she got screwed. Philomena didn't know where babies came from, but she soon found out when her belly began to grow. She was sent to a facility for "fallen women" run by a group of nuns. The move from her repressive hometown to the institution turned out to be an instance of "out of the frying pan and into the fire." She and the other women were treated terribly by the nuns. When the delivery turned out to be a breech birth, Philomena was denied medication because the pain was deemed part of her penance.
She worked in sweat-shop conditions with the other girls in the facility laundry to pay off her "debt" to the nuns. She was allowed to see her son, Anthony, for only one hour a day. That ended abruptly when the boy was sold to an American couple for adoption. Turned out the sisters were in the flesh trade, with the going rate at the time being roughly $1000 per child. Philomena was inconsolable when she heard the news. The shattered woman spent decades trying to find her son. The nuns offered no information, pointing to an agreement she was pressured to sign relinquishing her rights. She eventually teamed up with a journalist to determine the fate of her child.
Stephen Frears (Tamara Drewe, The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things) directs the film adaptation of Philomena's story, based on the non-fiction book by Martin Sixsmith, with a measured hand. The screenplay, written by actor Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, takes some liberties with the facts, but hews much closer to the truth that most "inspired by" movies. The production serves as a investigative tale, a sometimes-funny mismatched travelers road story, an indictment of those who perpetuate and profit from sexual repression, and a touching account of determination and faith.
Judi Dench is stunning as Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark is fine in flashbacks of young Philomena). At first glance, Philomena at 60 years old seems easily flustered, a bit dotty and generally dismissible. But there is more to her and Dench deftly reveals the many aspects of her character. Philomena's interactions with cynical journalist Martin Sixsmith, played quite well by Coogan, could easily have turned into shtick, but Dench keeps the proceedings from becoming gooey or cute.
I won't go into detail about what became of Philomena's son. Suffice to say that he became involved with high-level Republican politics in the '80s, a period noted for Reagan's avoidance of the word AIDS and a great amount of fear and hatred aimed at gay Americans. The film could easily have become a screed against those who demonize sex and sexuality, but Frears and company show admirable restraint. Philomena Lee is a forgiving soul, and I believe the film is tempered in large part due to her influence. The result is rich, surprising, involving and hard to forget.