The first surprise I got at Philomena was the number of people in the audience. We, my husband and I, arrived just before show time because I had read that when other mothers saw it, there were not a lot of people in the theatre. But when we walked in, the centre section of the large theatre was almost full. But the audience seemed to be configured in an unusual way. Two people together interspersed with many many people who were there alone. An empty seat separating each pair or single. It looked liked everyone had tried to give everyone else space. Maybe privacy, as much as you can have in a movie theatre.
When we found seats, much, much closer to the screen than we usually sit, our immediate neighbours were a woman of about my vintage and a woman who looked to be in her forties. This forty something woman (an adoptee maybe) sat leaning forward in her seat throughout the entire movie. The woman on the other side frequently wiped tears from her eyes.
I am not going to go into the plot of the movie because the story is pretty well known and others have described it in great detail and well. I refer you here and here. See also the radio interview link at the end of this post.
I must confess I went to see Philomena almost out of a sense of duty. I said to my husband, “Let’s just go and get this over with.” I’d read the reports from other mothers of non-stop tears. For many reasons I wasn’t really up for that.
But sometimes you have to take one for the team and so I wanted to go, to support the movie, to support the fact someone was finally telling our story. Because whether you were in a laundry in Ireland with mean nuns, or in a maternity home in North America, or just isolated from your friends and potential supporters by your parents, this is your story because it is the story of the loss of and the search for your own child.
So the movie started. I had the Kleenex ready but to my surprise, I didn’t cry. One of the drawbacks to being a writer is you watch to see how they are doing it, how they are telling the tale. I always think the sign of good writing is you feel like someone is taking you by the hand, a confident, competent someone, and saying “Come with me, I’m going to take you on a journey.” So many people have gotten this particular journey so very wrong that I was a little nervous about that. But I knew a few minutes in that I was in good hands. Faith in Dame Judi Dench’s project-picking abilities is maintained.
And so we are going along and I am not crying. I am watching. There is a flashback where Philomena is in labour and my hand is on my chest but it’s not too bad. I am Ok. I breath. I recover. We are out of the flashback, we are back in the present. But then comes the scene where they take Philomena’s son away and give him to a wealthy couple from America and I feel such a pain in my chest, like something has been run straight through my heart. I think I can’t stand it. I’m not sure I can keep it together. I think I am going to let out a sob – sobs. I start to breath again, deeper, more slowly, this time. I look at my husband beside me. And I recover again.
For me, there were four scenes like this in the movie. They are probably different for every mother who sees it or maybe they are all the same. I think the audience was moved by some of them too. Often the theatre would become very, very quiet. When the journalist discovers that Philomena’s son has died, a collective gasp goes up from the audience behind me. They don’t just understand it. They feel it.
Although some people have criticized the movie for being too soft, I didn’t think so. I thought they were racking up the points that I would have wanted them to make in a very effective show-don’t-tell way. It was subtle sometimes but it was there. I didn’t think the nuns came out of this looking too good. And not just the nun who was so mean to Philomena when she was young. I thought the present day nuns, even the incredibly angelic black nun who opens the door to let Philomena and the journalist in to the convent and the nun who answers their questions, have been co-opted. They are putting on a shiny face because – well that all happened so long ago. How unfortunate there was a fire and all the records were burned. We regret…
Should I give a spoiler alert? I’m not sure I really need a spoiler alert. I am about to say Philomena and the journalist realize fairly far into the movie that they have been lied to by the nuns/adoption agency and go back to the convent a second time. That this is part of the story should not come as a big surprise to the people who are reading this blog. Only the most naive of those touched, one way or another, by adoption do not realize that adoption agencies lie – to us and frequently to adoptive parents as well. I have often wondered if the strong resistance to open records was and is because adoption agencies know that on reunion, these lies will be discovered. But I have strayed off topic.
One of my most favourite lines in the movie is spoken by the journalist after they discover the lies. He tells Philomena this time they are going back to the convent and they are going to talk to the nuns – without the tea and cakes. Without the tea and cakes. (Without the unicorns and rainbows!) Throughout the movie, the journalist often takes the audience’s place, asking as we go along the very questions that the uninitiated in the audience may be thinking themselves. He starts out at “Who cares!” and by the end of the movie he has reached “How dare they?” His radicalization is good to see.
Fairly far into the process, Philomena has a moment when she falters and wants to back out. I wasn’t sure if that was motivated by fear or guilt, maybe a little of both. But press on she did. But of course she had an ally and advocate. And that was another thing I liked about the movie, the serendipitous nature of Philomena and the journalist coming together. Sometimes God, the universe, whoever, puts the people you need to do something right in front of you once you take that first big step off the cliff. And for Philomena that first step was telling her daughter who she really was, that she had had this son. I wondered who in that movie theatre with me was a closeted mother, still living with pain and shame. What got me started on my journey was listening to a program on the CBC about women like me. I hope one of the things the movie does is help someone watching it find the courage to start to accept who they really are and take whatever first steps they can to come out of the (birth) mother closet.
Another thing I thought was extremely realistic was how Philomena clings to, and I mean clings, and delights in every little bit of information she finds out about her son’s life. Except the fact of his death, of course.
Throughout the movie Philomena was portrayed as a naive romantic. Sometimes a little too naive – my only complaint. But I thought it was wonderful that she still had happy memories of the night she met her son’s father, despite what happened, and that she liked to read romantic stories where the poor heroine triumphs in the end. How love wins out over money and privilege. As they go on their journey, she describes these books in great detail to the journalist who rolls his eyes. She says after she describes the happy ending – I didn’t see that coming.
And that to me, in a way, sums up the whole movie. I don’t think at the beginning Philomena would have ever thought her story would end with the powerful scene that happens at the end. And I’m not going to spoil that. Go and see it. There is one scene where you see in simple, naive Philomena’s face flashes of the role Judi Dench played in Shakespeare in Love – Queen Elizabeth the First.
“Mr. Tilney!” Queen Elizabeth/Judi says to some detractor in Shakespeare in Love, “Have a care with my name. You will wear it out.” Her face has the look of someone who knows she has power.
You know, in Philomena, – I didn’t see that look coming.
I hope Judi Dench wins another oscar. I hope Steve Coogan gets nominated too.
I have to go. My chest is starting to hurt again.
With thanks to a fellow mother and my massage therapist who both told me about this: I am adding a link to The Current, A CBC radio show on the subject of Philomena. It includes an interview with the journalist.