The story of the Magdalene laundries is not exactly a chapter of Irish history that anyone wants to hang on a wall. For more than 200 years, the Magdalene laundries were an asylum engineered to incarcerate young girls who were either promiscuous or prostitutes or the victims of rape. It was little more than a sweatshop in which the girls were forced into hard labor – usually doing laundry - for a certain term and were regarded like inmates. These asylums were sanctioned by the Catholic Church, operated by nuns and privately funded by the government. Many girls were guilty of nothing. Some were pregnant and had children and were only allowed to see their children for an hour a day. Even still, a child could be adopted and sent away without the mother's knowledge or consent. You should know that this is not a story out of The Dark Ages. In fact, the very last of the Magdalene Laundries closed its doors in 1996.
Don't panic, though. Stephen Frear's film Philomena is not an expose of the Magdalene laundries. That story has already been told in Peter Mullan's hard-bitten 2003 drama The Magdalene Sisters. They do, however, serve as a backdrop to the story of one person whose life was affected, for better and for worse, by her time locked away behind the walls of the laundries.
Philomena tells the story of Philomena Lee, an Irish catholic woman who spent most of her life regretting one fateful event that never left her heart. A half century ago Philomena made a mistake, the consequences of which have haunted her ever since. Back in 1951, she was a teenager. She went to a carnival. She met a boy. Things got serious. Nine months later she was living in Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea where she gave birth to a son she named Anthony. Later, she was forced to stand by helplessly as her son was adopted by an American couple. Philomena, a devout Catholic, believed that her separation from her son was penance for her sin. Yet, it is something that she has never come to terms with. Half a century later, her sad eyes are a window into painful memories and regret.
Philomena, played in a lovely performance by Judi Dench, wants to know what ever happened to her son, and finds herself in the company of an out-of-work BBC reporter named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the film) who, at first, sees the old girl's story as a sellable human interest piece. Anyone with eyes can see that she is much more than just a sound bite. She's warm-hearted, a bit naïve, with a stubborn resolve, yet she's not a standard crabby old bat. She's a cozy soul with a twee Irish accent and too often the perpetrator of TMI.
At first, Martin is purely professional, but as the deep wounds of Philomena's story unearth, he finds himself taking it personally. He is at odds with her passionate faith, because he himself is a newly-minted atheist. He labels himself confidently, but we sense that he hasn't completely rid himself of all doubts. The two are not on equal ground. Martin's mind is a flurry of intellectual cynicism. He's a college-educated journalist who seems to have a quip, an aside, and an answer for just about everything. Philomena, meanwhile, is earnest and straightforward. She sees the world in terms that are purely black and white.
The search for Philomena's son becomes an awakening for both she and Martin. Travelling from rural Ireland to England and to American, the two dig up bits and pieces about Anthony, some of which are a relief, others are painful. What she finds will not be revealed here, except to say that it is not what we expect. Little by little, bit by bit, information about her son comes to light; yet, all Philomena really wants to know is if he ever wondered about her.
What is interesting about Philomena is that this is not a hard, maudlin melodrama. Frears allows a good deal of humor, especially in regards to Philomena's awakening to the rude shocks of the modern world. She's surprisingly calm, especially in her attitude about the sexual encounter that produced her son.
Judi Dench, whose presence in a film is welcomed no matter what she's doing, gives one of her best performances as a woman whose eyes betray a weary heart. Through the years, her missing child has never left her mind or her heart, yet the experience hasn't destroyed her spirit. She is a woman devoted to God, un-embittered by her experience that keeps her mind on the task and won't allow herself to be pushed into outbursts of emotion.
The outbursts are reserved for her travelling companion. Martin reacts more or less the way we would. He's outraged by what he learns about Philomena's experience. He's a man who has slipped away from God in the cold of a brutal world (remember, he's a journalist) and he can't understand her unbending faith. You expect a film that is emotional, but you don't expect one that brings in questions of faith and the meaning of God. During one roadside rant about the meaning of God, he asks her if she really believes all that she claims, and he is stunned by her straightforward, "Yes." Philomena is a very moving film. It is touching when it needs to be, humorous when it's appropriate and comes to an ending that never feels like a manipulation. If there is one weakness it is probably that it leaves several questions unanswered. Those are difficult to discuss without spoilers, but you walk out in deep discussions over some of the issues it raises. This is a beautiful film about the chasms of time, the measure of lingering heartache and the manner in which old wound are dealt with.