Love, Hope, and Evil Nuns

Imagine being able to pick out a child from an assortment of infants and toddlers, as easily

as choosing a puppy from a litter or candy from a dish. You might even take two.

It sounds like the plot of a fanciful children’s book, but that’s what people could do at certain convents in Ireland only a few decades ago. Now the practice is often referred to as forcible adoption.

When Philomena Lee met journalist Martin Sixsmith, she’d spent decades agonizing over a secret she’d kept for 50 years. In 1955 she’d lost her three-year-old son, Anthony Lee, when an American couple took him from the Catholic convent where he and his mother were staying. Unwed and disgraced, Philomena gave birth there and was working off her debt to the facility, as required in these “Magdalene laundries”.

Sixsmith’s book about Philomena’s search, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, was adapted for the screen by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope and directed by Stephen Frears.

Released in 2013, it’s available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library.

Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) has been fired from his job as a political advisor when Philomena’s daughter approaches him about investigating the whereabouts of Anthony. Sixsmith isn’t interested at first, but without much else on his plate, he finally agrees to meet Philomena (Judi Dench).

The urbane Sixsmith is out of his comfort zone with the chatter of folksy Philomena, but he’s moved to anger by the injustice of her story and senses a scandal worth exposing.

The nuns of the convent are impervious to Philomena’s questions, but Martin’s sleuthing uncovers information that points to the United States. In short order, they discover that Anthony Lee became Michael Hess, a high profile political consultant, who died several years earlier. Martin’s story and Philomena’s quest seem destined for an abrupt end, but Philomena decides to continue the journey, looking for friends and family who can tell her about Michael. There is still a surprise in store for her — Michael left a message for his mother.

While the subject matter is infuriating, Philomena’s buoyancy makes her good company — it’s Martin, not Philomena, who refers to the nuns as evil.

Her interactions with Martin are comic as well as wise, as he eventually comes to respect that the unworldly Philomena has reserves of strength that he can’t match — even if her taste in the bodice-ripping genre of literature confounds him. Philomena Lee is served well by Judi Dench’s warm portrayal.

Philomena is a surprisingly light film, considering the subject matter — mostly due to Philomena’s determination to refrain from bitterness and the rapport between Philomena and Martin.

But while the film celebrates resiliency, it doesn’t deny the grief that the convent’s actions caused, either. A haunting melancholy is seen in the figure of Michael (Sean Mahon), who is glimpsed in grainy home movies and still photographs. The real Michael Hess is seen in some of the footage. 

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