The real Philomena Lee


Sami Gillette

The film “Philomena” is a beautiful, heart wrenching portrayal of a mother’s search for her long-lost son 50 years after he is taken from her. It focuses on the real life story of Irishwoman Philomena Lee, who as a teenager, was sent to a convent after she became pregnant out of wedlock. Throughout the film there is a focus on Catholicism and sin – Philomena is sent to the covenant in the first place because her family is shamed by her. At one point in the film the young Philomena explains that it is as if she had died, rather than gotten pregnant.

Philomena is forced to work long, hard hours at the abbey to pay off the debt to the nuns for providing shelter for her and her son. The sense of guilt and sin permeates the whole film and is what keeps Philomena silent for 50 years after her son is stolen from her and taken to America by adoptive parents. What is most tragic is that Philomena never wanted to lose her son, which is why she finally asks for assistance from journalist Martin Sixsmith.

Judi Dench does a fantastic job portraying the older Philomena Lee and her co-star is Steve Coogan, who plays the cynical Martin Sixsmith. The film highlights the very real problem of young Irish women losing their children because of manipulative, profiteering convents in mid-1900′s Ireland.
Explains a Washington Post article, “The mothers did get to see their children every day, but they didn’t always fully realize that those children were offered for adoption, as orphans, to American couples.”

In an interview, Philomena explained that the convent always refused to disclose information about her son – nuns even blatantly lied to her. She explained that if they had been truthful there probably would never have been a book or movie.

While truth may have made her search easier, many are thankful that Philomena’s story came out. It has raised awareness about the sometimes harrowing circumstances surrounding adoption, especially in Ireland in the mid 1900’s. Numerous adoptees have also reached out to her in hopes she can help guide them to their birth mothers.

A New York Times review states, “Philomena has many facets. It is a comedic road movie, a detective story, an infuriated anticlerical screed, and an inquiry into faith and the limitations of reason, all rolled together. Fairly sophisticated about spiritual matters, it takes pains to distinguish faith from institutionalized piety.”