New Movie Philomena Explores Family and Faith

By Sara Schwartz

philomena logoTake one tragic family secret, add an unlikely, yet heartwarming friendship, and an Oscar-winning actress, Judi Dench, and you have the recipe for box office magic.

Philomena (opening November 22 in select theaters and November 27 nationwide) tells the true story of Philomena Lee, a plainspoken, 70-something Irish woman who takes life as it comes and finds delight in the little things—even though she has been harboring a painful secret for 50 years.

Flashback to staunchly Catholic 1950s Ireland. Naïve, 19-year-old Philomena meets a charming young man at a traveling carnival, and becomes pregnant out of wedlock. When her pregnancy becomes obvious, she is labeled a "fallen woman" and sent to a convent, where she is forced into servitude after giving birth to her son, Anthony. While he is still a toddler, the nuns put up him for adoption in America, leaving Philomena with no clue as to his whereabouts. Decades later, she attempts to track Anthony down with the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith.

An Unlikely Friendship

Most of the movie centers on Philomena and Martin's transatlantic search for her lost child, during which Martin unearths an earnestness that he had long buried, and the two form an unlikely mother-son bond.

"There was something about the notion of Philomena losing a son and, perhaps, Martin fulfilling that role," says actor Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the film and played the role of Martin. "There’s a scene in the hotel when he has to call her 'mother' to get in the room which I always like, because he feels awkward about it. But the reason he feels awkward about it is because [the mother-son dynamic] obviously already occurred to him."

Embracing Forgiveness

While issues about religious repression and the cynicism of modern journalism weigh heavily in this real-life tale, ultimately the story is about forgiveness and the power of human connection. After being turned out by her family and punished by the nuns who take her in, Philomena comes through with her Catholic faith intact and an optimistic outlook. She keenly laments not being present in her son's life, but doesn't allow it to extinguish her inner light.

Actress Sophie Kennedy Clark, who plays young Philomena in the movie, visited the real Philomena while preparing for her role. "She was asking me about the scenes that I was doing, and I said some of them I was a little nervous about because I really wanted to do her justice," says Kennedy Clark. "And she said, 'Well, I'll put in a good word with the man upstairs for you.' And I was like, 'You what? You're still talking to him?' And she said, 'Oh yes, he owes me one.' She's got such a sense of humor about it. 'He owes me one.' Yeah, and a bit!"

Coogan was similarly struck by Philomena's capacity for forgiveness. "[Philomena's story] touched me and spoke to me, with regards to my own background as a Catholic," he says. "And I thought the story was very universal. It’s about mothers, babies, children – something everyone can identify with... She has this grace, and that grace is a result of her faith. That’s what I wanted to show."

For more information about Philomena (which is already getting Oscar buzz!), visit


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