Wednesday, December 11, 2013


While visiting my father in Las Vegas over the Thanksgiving week, we saw Philomena.

Philomena starring Judi Dench & Steve Coogan; directed by Stephen Frears; (2013) - Official Website

Philomena is based on the nonfiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith.  The name Philomena intrigued me.  A little research discovered that Philomena Lee was most likely named after St. Philomena.  The story of St. Philomena is worth of a movie if it hasn't already been made.

Quoting from Wikipedia, "Saint Philomena...was the daughter of a king in Greece who, with his wife, had converted to Christianity. At the age of about 13 she took a vow of consecrated virginity. When the Emperor Diocletian threatened to make war on her father, her father went with his family to Rome to ask for peace. The Emperor fell in love with the young Philomena and, when she refused to be his wife, subjected her to a series of torments: scourging, from whose effects two angels cured her; drowning with an anchor attached to her (two angels cut the rope and raised her to the river bank); being shot with arrows, (on the first occasion her wounds were healed; on the second, the arrows turned aside; and on the third, they returned and killed six of the archers, after which, several of the others became Christians). Finally the Emperor had her decapitated. The story goes that the decapitation occurred on a Friday at three in the afternoon, as with the death of Jesus."

Back to the film, Philomena is about Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) an elderly Irish woman who is put into contact with Martin Sixsmith, a journalist and disgraced Labour party figure.  When Philomena was a teenager in the early 1950s, she got pregnant.  Ashamed of her condition, her father placed her at a Catholic convent in Roscrea, Ireland.  While there she gave birth but signed away her parental rights and had to work for four years to pay back the convent for the costs of her and her baby's medical care.  Eventually, Philomena's son was adopted and she has had no contact with her son since then.

In present day England, Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) investigates Philomena's claims.  The nuns at the convent aren't too helpful but with a little digging, Sixsmith discovers that the nuns essentially sold the babies to the highest bidder and in those days, Americans had all the money.  It helps that a photo of Jane Russell hangs in the office of the Mother Superior of the convent.  In real life, Russell and her husband Bob Waterfield did adopt two children and one from Ireland although I don't know if it was from the same nunnery as Philomena Lee's son.

Using his contacts, Sixsmith confirms that Philomena's son and her friend's daughter were adopted by American.  He and Philomena fly to the US to track down the boy who would be in his 50s.  They discover that Philomena's son Anthony was renamed Michael Hess after adoption.  Michael Hess was a high ranking official in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.  I use the word "was" because he died in the mid-1990s.  Some more investigating reveals Michael Hess was a closeted homosexual, died of AIDS and his former partner Pete Olsen is still alive and living in the DC area.

Olsen shows Sixsmith and Philomena home movies of Michael & him including a trip to the convent in Roscrea they took towards the end of his life.  In a cruelly ironic twist, Olsen reveals that (per his instructions) Hess is buried on the grounds of the convent; the same convent Philomena has visited many times since leaving as a young woman.

Even though Philomena has been getting positive reviews, I thought it was a bit second rate.  Dench portrays Philomena as a country bumpkin.  Terribly naive for an old woman, suddenly, she becomes worldly when informed of her son's sexuality; using terms like bi-curious and "a beard."  Similarly, Coogan's Sixsmith is a pompous jerk and whose tenacity in the matter is suddenly attributed to his lapsed Roman Catholicism which doesn't seem to affect any other part of his life.  With one exception, the nuns at Roscrea are portrayed as cold and judgmental.

Moderately entertaining, Philomena doesn't reveal much about the characters.  The story is more interesting than the characters it involves; all the more so knowing it is based on fact.  It is interesting to see Dench play a simple woman who enjoys romance novels and remains a devout Catholic despite her treatment by the nuns. The role is about as different than her turn as M in the James Bond films as possible.

Mare Winningham has a memorable scene as Michael's sister.  Not exactly what a mother could hope for and far from excited at the prospect of meeting a friend of her birth mother, Winningham plays the woman as a cautionary tale that being adopted into a well-to-do family is not a panacea.

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