Is a film released in the UK on November 1, 2013 and starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, and based upon the true events surrounding the search by one Philomena Lee for her son who was taken from her as a child, with the assistance of then recently disgraced BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, recently having been fired from his job as a spin doctor when he actually advised the Blair Government to do something ethical for once.
It all starts in 1952, when Philomena Lee, (SPOILERS) an ordinary 18-year-old Irish girl and the product of a Catholic education, meets a handsome boy at a fair and has a wee fling with him up against a horse cart. Needless to say, this causes her to become pregnant, attract the ire of her family on whom she has brought disgrace, and them to subsequently have her mewed up in a Magdalene Laundry. Her child is born with a potentially hazardous breech birth but there's no medical intervention because "it's in God's hands now." Much screaming ensues, and there's the obligatory shots of her and the other "fallen women" being put to work in the laundry ten hours a day, seven days a week, with one hour a day to see their children. Leaving the nunnery is only permitted, we're told, by paying a £100 tithe of some description (which was orders of magnitude more than it would be today).
What they don't know is the nunnery in question advertises to rich American Catholics as an adoption agency. The sort of adoption agency which involves the prospective parents paying a fee. Selling children, in other words. Philomena's son Anthony and the daughter of one of her friends are subsequently adopted by the same rich American family and Philomena never sees him again.
In 2002, Martin Sixsmith (played admirably by Steve Coogan in a far cry from his most recent film role before this) is at a loose end after losing the New Labour game of thrones that was going on at the time and being fired and publicly disgraced. He's mildly depressed and advised to "try running" by a doctor (as opposed to his previous idea of writing a book on Russian history) when, at a party, he meets a waitress who overhears him grumping about his lot as a disgraced journalist and informs him of her mother, who's been looking for her child who she's not seen since he was taken away against her will 50 years ago. Despite dismissing it at first, he sets up a meet, his editor (Michelle Fairley, otherwise known as Caitlyn Stark) approves (because the combination of "evil nuns" and a little old lady will sell papers), and they go off to find him.
The rest of the film involves Martin and Philomena trying to find out what happened to her son, finding that he was a high-ranking legal adviser to the governments of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and also was a closeted homosexual who never came out because this would have buggered his career with the Republican Party, and died of AIDS in 1995. He also tried himself to find his birth mother, knew he was adopted, but the nuns at the Roscrea convent where Philomena was incarcerated actively stonewalled his attempts to find her just as they stonewalled her attempts to find him. "The records were lost in that big fire a few years back," they say, but they omit that the fire was the one they put them in. The purpose of all this skulduggery was to conceal the fact that the Magdalene Laundries were selling children.
In the end, it turns out that her son was buried in the grounds of the nunnery, and Philomena and Martin confront the last nun from those days left alive, a bitter, wheelchair-bound parcel of zealotry named Sister Hildegard. She stands by what happened because it was God's punishment on Philomena for fornication, and that only Jesus Christ could judge her, prompting Martin to ruminate that "Jesus Christ would tip you out that fucking wheelchair." Philomena, however, forgives her.
What do I think of it then? Excellent, that's what I think. The main draw of it is the way that Martin and Philomena bounce off each other so effectively. Martin is a lapsed Catholic and deeply intellectual and seems to be stuck, mentally at least, in the ways of the Westminster Village. Philomena, however, reads Aga Sagas and still is somewhat religious, though she doesn't go to mass or anything like that any more. He is aggressive and pushy whereas she prefers to effusively thank people for being one in a million. Both of them are in different ways fish out of water; Martin is unused to this type of investigation, preferring to dig up unpleasantness in Britain's political machine, while Philomena isn't used to the political-class society that Martin (and her son's friends and loved ones) moved in.
One of the best themes of the movie is about control of peoples' sexuality. The Church sees sex as a necessary evil, which doesn't jibe well with Philomena's quandary about how something enjoyable is a sin. "Do you know, I didn't even know I had a clitoris, Martin?" she puts it. While the reason that her son spent so long in the closet was in relation to how the Republican Party had (and still has, quite frankly) such a downer on homosexuality. At the same time, compare and contrast with Sister Hildegard, who kept her vow of chastity all her life and is bitter and twisted and unpleasant as a result. Yet the "carnally incontinent" Philomena is, arguably, more Christian than all the nuns in the film. She turns the other cheek. Her attitude throughout this is not to do what the Church tells her (the same Church which bade her, on pain of hellfire, sign away all rights to her child and with a gagging clause too) but to do what she thinks is the right thing, and appreciate that when Jesus taught that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," what was meant was that nobody was perfect, but that people should strive to do what is right. And at the end of the day, her forgiveness of Sister Hildegard and the nuns is based on the fact that her son went on to do far better for himself in the US than he would have in the small town in Ireland that she lived in, and that now she knows what happened to him all the loose ends are tied up. Bringing attention to the dark secret of the Magdalene Laundries was, if you will, just a side quest.
Incidentally, yes, Philomena Lee is a real person, the book by Martin Sixsmith on which this was based, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee is available for purchase. Philomena herself, if the credits are to be believed, seemed to have lent her time to this film as well. In addition, the acting is top notch and the film, despite its grim subject matter, has moments of bittersweet humour about it.
I therefore strongly recommend people see it. If nothing else, it would probably cause Bill Donohue of the American Catholic League severe butthurt, given that he has this year written yet another verbose denial of what went on in the Magdalene Laundries.