In 1952, unwed mother Philomena Lee gave birth to her son Anthony at a Catholic home for unwed mothers. Three years later, her son was given up for adoption to good Catholic parents in the United States, and Lee was never able to contact him again. The film Philomena, starring Judi Dench, portrays Lee’s story as she reported it to author Martin Sixsmith for his 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Critics have looked at the film with a skeptical eye on how it portrays Irish history, and some have accused it of anti-Catholic sentiment. The question of the forced adoption, however, also sheds light on adoption-rights issues, not only in situations like Lee’s, but in modern scenarios. For a good research paper topic in women’s studies, religious studies, or courses on adoption rights, take a look at the issues raised by the film.
Dench’s portrayal of Lee
Sixsmith’s chronicle focuses more on the life of her son, who became Michael Hess upon adoption and rose to become chief legal counsel to President George H. W. Bush. But the film stars Dench as Lee, emphasizing her search for her son, years after their separation. The real-life Lee has been vocal in support of the film, despite some critics seeing lines of levity detracting from her characterization. The real Lee, wrote Brendan O’Reilly in Opinion Online post “Philomena is a distortion of the truth,” is “an articulate 80 year old rather than the ‘simpleton’ portrayed in the movie.”
But despite O’Reilly’s objections, Dench’s performance and the film itself have already been lauded by critics, earning three Golden Globe nominations, including Dench for best actress. Philomena has also been nominated for four Oscar awards, which include Best Picture and Dench as Best Actress in a Leading Role. The screenplay won an award at the Venice International Film Festival.
O’Reilly also noted some differences between the film and the book (which added some sensationalism to the tale itself), presumably made to heighten the drama:
- In the book, Sixsmith does much of the research into locating Michael Hess and learning of his fate solo. The film shows a joint trip, thus allowing for many more emotional scenes for Dench, which were entirely invented for the movie.
- A 2004 joint trip Sixsmith and Lee did make together was to Sean Ross Abbey, where records about Hess might have been kept. In the book, the nuns there are portrayed as saintly; in the film, they are polite but obstructive.
- In the film, Lee learns of Hess’s death in the U.S. from Sixsmith; in the book, Hess’s death is reported to Lee by a nun in 2004.
O’Reilly concluded that the Hollywood changes to the true story intentionally put the nuns—and thus, the Catholic Church—in a bad light. Some critics have gone so far as to say that Lee herself harbors anti-Catholic sentiment. But Lee remains a practicing Catholic, one who never gave up her faith, and who, though saddened to discover that her son died before she located him, was glad to learn that he had also searched to find her.
And while the nuns are portrayed in a villainous light in the film, Donna Brazile of CNN in her blog post “Is ‘Philomena’ an anti-Catholic film?” felt that there was a more complex portrayal of Catholicism being offered. She wrote that she “saw in [the film] the positive attributes of my Catholic upbringing, attributes that are increasingly at the forefront of religious discussion.” For Brazile, a practicing Catholic, the story of Philomena Lee was not just about the search for her son, but “her journey to find forgiveness for the individuals who treated her with such cruelty, and the church that allowed them to do so,” which offers what Brazile considers to be a truly Catholic message.
Many critics call Anthony’s adoption from the nuns a forced adoption. Lee truly wanted to keep her son, but she has acknowledged that it wouldn’t have been possible; her father disowned her, and she had no way to support a child on her own. While there is no reason to dispute the heart-wrenching scene where she watches her son being driven away, Lee knew early on that she had to prepare for the day Anthony would be adopted.
The issue of Ireland’s closed adoption system remains. While the orphanage system seen in Philomena is an artifact of Irish history, according to Jillian Van Trunhout in “Give full rights to adopted children” for the London Mirror, “We have around 50,000 adopted people with no automatic legal right to their birth certificate, medical information or history, and no legal right to tracing information about their identity.” For Van Trunhout, Philomena gave viewers a window into the reasons why closed adoption systems should be changed.
What do you think can be learned from Philomena? Tell us in the comments.