Philomena – Sixsmith’s Story of Human Frailty & Forgiveness

Judy Dench and Steve Coogan, a remarkable pairing

Following our preview of the movie Philomena, directed so sensitively by Stephen Frears and starring English actor Dame Judy Dench and comedian, actor, writer, producer Steve Coogan, as we walked home my regular movie buddy and I reflected on what the story was really all about. We agreed it deeply touched many of our own emotions and experiences.

We also concluded some people would tend to see it as some sort of an ‘attack’ on the Roman Catholic Church, when it was in reality a movie about human frailty. It is also about the power and freedom that comes with giving and receiving love and true forgiveness.

This movie beautifully portrays the love an English woman Philomena Lee had for her little lost child.

It is a story about true events and an amazing journey undertaken by two people to uncover the truth behind the heartbreaking story, which remained a mystery for half a century.

We discover that her memory of Anthony has remained untarnished for over fifty years, after he was violently taken away when she was a young woman

Since that time she has never given up searching for him, or thinking about him every day.

Martin Sixsmith is a cynical political journalist, one who is entirely weary of the 50’s working world he inhabits.

He and Philomena are brought together by unusual circumstances; two people who normally would never have been likely to encounter each other at any other stage of their life.

He has lost his way while living his own ‘ideal’ life, experiencing a fall from grace that is not his fault, one that leaves him jaded, disillusioned and tired.

It’s a truly wonderful journey he gets to take with Philomena Lee.

While both touching and memorable, it is also funny in parts while in yet others, deeply sad. She and Martin learn how to share and to laugh together, in what are truly dark moments, when giving up the search for Anthony often seems the easiest option for them both.

He is working hard to please a publisher, who is anxious for the human interest story she is funding him to write.

The ‘spin’ conversations they share on the phone as he and Philomena make their way in America looking for Anthony should make anyone in the advertising and marketing worlds squirm.

By extension and by sharing Philomena’s extraordinary journey, perhaps the one Martin Sixsmith ‘has to take’, ultimately he has been given a gift of opportunity; a unique one in which he can hope to not only help Philomena to find her child, but also learn to love himself.

Philomena Lee is truly an enigma, a puzzlement for Martin Sixsmith.

There’s is a wonderfully connecting story happening between them, one highlighting human frailty and the importance of being able to offer forgiveness to those who need it most.

She is a woman, who while both kind and caring to everyone she meets, has a delightful and simple sense of fun, as well as a wonderfully quirky sense of humour.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s the man behind the counter in the swanky hotel where they are staying in Washington who’s making her an omelette, or someone famous or illustrious, for Philomena they are all people going about the business of life, just as she is and they deserve both her kindness and respect.

Philomena is a woman prepared to stand up, be counted and take a stand when she needs to. Although at times she doubts her decision and tries to turn back or away.

Philomena Lee and Martin Sixsmith in real life

However there is always some sign she often doesn’t recognize at first, or an event that happens, which sets her going forward again along the road we are traveling with her, one we the viewers would consider the right road.

Don’t take any more of this journey if you feel my review may spoil it for you.

Philomena decides she has to know, on what would have been her son’s 50th birthday, what happened to tiny Anthony. He was the abiding joy of her young life. She often looks longingly at the only photograph she has of him and so finally decides to tell her grown up daughter, all about him and try to explain why she had to give him up so long ago to complete strangers.

Her desire is in part her reaching the age when she is wanting to come to terms with her own successes and failures in life.

Especially the feeling of her inability to protect her child at a time when he was most vulnerable.

It is not a nice feeling and it won’t go away and it is a miracle really, she finds the right man to take her on the journey to find him. Perhaps God does work in mysterious ways?

First Anthony was quite literally torn out of her body as she gave birth to him by painful breech delivery in a convent where comfort and true caring was something she didn’t receive from most of the Nuns in charge.

After that, just like the other girls working alongside her in the convent laundry, she was only allowed to see her child for one hour every day.

They were working hard, seven days a week, to pay the nuns back for looking after them both. Philomena did not take issue with that, as long as she could see and spend time with her little son, until she could hopefully leave. Although there didn’t seem to be much hope that could really happen.

When he is only three years of age the nuns sell Philomena’s son Anthony, as well as the little girl Mary who has been born to Philomena’s friend in the convent, Kathleen. Another three year old, they have become very attached to each other in the nursery. They are given up, sold to an American family, who take them both back to America together because Anthony won’t be separated from Mary.

We later find out they grow up as Kate and Michael Hess within the household of a posh privileged Washington family.

Their real mothers find that they have to accept they have lost them, for what they believe will be forever. It’s completely heart wrenching.

The documentary style film footage of Anthony/Michael’s life’s journey is especially touching, beautifully acted and portrayed.

Philomena had committed a ‘sin’ in the eyes of the church and the majority of society at the time, as she explored the act of love with a charming young man she barely knew in her late teens, not knowing what would and could happen.

Up until that point in her life she had been, like many young women of that day and age, told nothing about how babies were conceived, or born, or what she should expect out of living her own life as a married woman.

The unlikely pairing; Martin Sixsmith and Philomena Lee in 2013

Marriage was a highly desirable state in the 50’s and for many, considered the ultimate goal for a woman who wanted to be truly happy.

At least that’s what they were told.

Having broken all the rules of the society she lived in, and the church she belonged to, what else could Philomena expect?

The head nun decides she and the other girls in the convent’s care, who have had a similar experience, must all be punished. As if losing their children wasn’t enough to bear.

We are all left with no doubt the Nuns in charge of the Convent strayed far from the path of living a true Christian life. It was truly a case of do as I say, not as I do.

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee is sadly an indictment on how a great many people within the institution of the Church had, by the mid 20th century, become totally disconnected from the realities of the life that everyone else in the real world led.

They had also, and most importantly, lost touch with the message the historical Jesus wanted to deliver to the world, one about caring, courage, compassion and love.

For the second half of the 20th century the sins perpetrated by priests, nuns, bishops and mother superiors in convents and cloisters all over the world were literally swept under the metaphorical carpet.

They remained silent, acting in secret, using fear as a weapon, not love as a gift for hope.

There was a great deal of whispering behind closed doors.

Papers pertaining to ‘incident’s’ that occurred, like the selling of innocent children were conveniently lost, or in this case burned out of existence in a backyard bonfire.

Amazingly, Philomena never loses her own faith. Why, because she is a true follower of Jesus and his message of the power of love.

Offering forgiveness to our fellow human beings and their distressing actions, when they do us wrong, as suggested by Jesus the historical man, is not an easy concept in this day and age for many to embrace. Philomena does, and she is all the better for it.

Convincing Martin he would be too is the hard part, although she’s not consciously trying to do that or to change his mind.

He will do that for himself only when, and if he understands.

Many seem to have misunderstood the message is about celebrating life as a gift, one we should all be able to embrace, respect and honour. Surely we do not need to subscribe to a formalized religious body to do that.

Jesus lived in a world in which violence; cruelty, war and inflicted suffering were conditions seemingly integral to the DNA of a Roman ruling society. Those conditions extended far beyond the boundaries of the then known Mediterranean world. In many places on our earth today, some 2000+ years later, they still exist.

His own mother Mary knew about going against societies rules; finding herself pregnant out of wedlock. She also had to watch her much loved son as he was torn from her arms as well, nailed to a wooden cross and crucified in a horrible death as a young adult. He was on the cusp of living what should have been a great life, but allowed himself to be treated cruelly to make his point.

Christianity was not meant to be an excuse for escaping from the world, but about helping to bring about its transformation.

This is what happens to Philomena and Martin on their journey together. They are both liberated by knowledge and experience.

Near the end of the movie the single Nun at the heart of the cruelty inflicted on Philomena and the other young women in difficulties, is finally goaded by an angry Martin who demands answers.

He wants to find out why she was so vindictive and cruel to the many young women in her trusting care.

We discover she has placed herself high on a pedestal, holding herself up as a point of perfection by which all the other women she encountered along life’s way would, and have been judged.

Sister Hildegard gradually made their story of frailty about herself.

She was reflecting on her own inability to live up to an ‘ideal’ of symbolically marrying Christ, living without indulging in the ‘sin’ of sex and remaining both chaste and ‘whole’, required by the church, which is a man made institution and most certainly not a requirement that would have ever been put forward by the man called Jesus.

Judy Dench as Philomena Lee and her younger self, played by Sophie Kennedy Clark are both truly wonderful.

BFI London Film Festival American Express Gala screening of "Philomena" at the Odeon Leicester Square - L to R Steve Coogan (aka Martin Sixsmith), Judy Dench (aka Philomena Lee), Stephen Frears, Philomena Lee, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Martin Sixsmith

This deeply moving film has to be a highlight of Judy Dench’s acting career. The sensitivity, the beauty, the heroism and magnetism of her performance in this incredible story deserves endless accolades.

She is a truly a master of her craft and it can be hoped she is recognised with copious awards.

Steve Coogan is also marvelous as Martin Sixsmith. He has just the right touch.

His moments of witty, often wise repartee are delivered with sometimes stinging irony; how a brilliant comedian does when he’s endeavouring to have people understand and accept through laughter, their own humanity.

Barbara Jefford in her small role as the embittered old nun Sister Hildegard, who has caused so much pain and suffering for so many is so entirely convincing you can feel the hairs stand up on your arms, as if it is happening to you.

Philomena’s journey to find her son is not only cathartic for her, but also in the end for Martin as well. And, I would venture to say, for lots of people in the audience.

With his ‘human interest story’ about to save his life through sales, Martin receives far more than he bargained for to write about.

He doesn’t really realize it at the time, but along the way he has slowly been discovering what lies at the true heart of the matter; being able to offer forgiveness, especially when you are angry with the people in your life and disappointed with the often rum card life and circumstances deals you.

Philomena quietly and gently shows him how and he finally ‘gets it’.

For my movie buddy and myself this film was indeed special. Both women who grew up post World War II in very different cultures, although in the very sexually repressive climate that was the ‘fifties in different parts of the world, we agreed that we empathized completely with Philomena and her plight.

The very real lack of compassion shown by some of the women who ‘married’ Christ is often hard to understand. Although we do know that just like in all societies, including that of the church, a good majority of women are an exception to broad sweeping generalizations.

The ones that aren’t are the ones it is hard for most women to come to terms with.

To be fair and offer a balanced view, there were man Nuns like the  sister depicted in the movie, who at considerable risk to her own well being, manages to take an image of Philomena’s little boy and give it to her so she would have a keepsake. Even if she is doing it to assuage her own guilt at not railing against the injustice of her mother superior, as a believing Nun should.

Any religious journey is often difficult for both clergy and laity, especially when it’s about issues of human morality.

Philomena’s journey isn’t taken on a smooth road. It is a bumpy, difficult, agonizing and a sometimes painful one in which laughter is the panacea.

Judy Dench’s laugh is so entirely infectious. While in one way life is dealing her a really terrible hand, laughing helps and enables Philomena to come to terms with the fact that, first and foremost, she had given her much-loved son his life.

Then as she finds out, it was a life that was not only both deep and meaningful, but also one in which we discover he ultimately both respected and honoured his real mother.

Philomena is the favourite movie of all those my movie buddy and I have seen on our days together this year. If we were critics we would probably give it full marks.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013

Watch the Trailer


Directed by Stephen Frears

Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope


JUDI DENCH as Philomena Lee
STEVE COOGAN as Martin Sixsmith
SOPHIE KENNEDY CLARK as a young Philomena
BARBARA JEFFORD as Sister Hildegarde
KATE FLEETWOOD as a young Sister Hildergarde


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