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The Inspiring Trailer for ‘Philomena’ and the True Tragedy Behind the Film

Mark Deming
Movie Talk
September 27, 2013

The first trailer for the new movie "Philomena" makes it look like a comedy-drama full of laughs, heart, and surprises. However, the film is based on a true story that is darker and more tragic than the trailer would lead you to expect.

Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, "Philomena" tells the story of an out-of-work political reporter from London, Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) who is wondering what to do with his life when he's approached with an unusual project. Philomena Lee (Dench) is an elderly Irish woman who, while she was in her teens, gave birth to a baby boy out of wedlock. When the child was three, the Catholic convent that took Philomena in turned him over to an adoptive family, and she signed an agreement never to reveal the secrets of the adoption or seek out her child.

Fifty years later, Philomena deeply regrets her decision, and her daughter has approached Sixsmith with a proposal: help Philomena find her long-lost son, and use their story as the basis for his next writing project.

In the trailer, Martin and Philomena strike up a wary but strong friendship as they travel to America in search of her son, and the preview generates plenty of laughs from Philomena's sweet but slightly clueless demeanor. "What if he died in Vietnam?" Philomena asks as she thinks about her son's fate. "What is he lived on the street? Or what if he was obese?" "What makes you think he'd be obese?" Martin asks, clearly puzzled. "Because of the size of the portions!" Philomena replies.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in 'Philomena'
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in 'Philomena'

Steve Coogan co-wrote the screenplay for "Philomena" in addition to playing Sixsmith, and his script earned an award at the Venice Film Festival. But while he's clearly tailored the story to fit his own dry comic style and Dench's likeable strength, the true story of Philomena Lee is sadder and more troubling that what's shown in the trailer.

The real Philomena Lee lost her mother when she was only six years old, and her father placed her in a convent school in County Tipperary. Lee says she had been taught nothing of the facts of life when at age 18, she fell for a young man she met at a county fair. In July 1952, the young man was long gone as Lee gave birth to a baby boy. The frightened mother and her son were taken in by the Sean Ross Abbey, where Lee had to work long hours to support herself and the boy.

However, while Lee and the other young women like her were treated as sinners who should live in shame of their transgressions, she was unaware that the Abbey was earning a profit from their presence. The Irish government was paying convents and Catholic institutions one pound per week for every unwed mother in their care, and two shillings and sixpence for each child. They were also helping to make rosaries and other items that brought the Abbey a steady income, as well as working in their gardens and greenhouses.

The Abbey brokered the adoption of Philomena's son in 1955, and she was forced to sign a document that read, "I relinquish full claim for ever to my child and surrender him to Sister Barbara, Superioress of Sean Ross Abbey … I further undertake never to attempt to see, interfere with or make any claim to the said child at any future time."

While Philomena fought against the adoption, with no money and no family support – her father cut all ties with her after she became pregnant – her efforts were futile, and the most she could uncover was that her son was probably living in the United States.

Philomena went on to become a nurse, and she found a husband in 1959, with whom she had two children. She thought often of the child she was forced to give away, but kept her secret until 2004, when after a bit too much sherry at a holiday party, she broke down and confessed to her daughter Jane about her boy. Jane put Philomena in touch with Martin Sixsmith after meeting him at a party, and together he and Lee went through the arduous process of searching through adoption records. They did so without the cooperation of Sean Ross Abbey, who they discovered had made a healthy profit arranging for childless couples to adopt Irish children, and were not inclined to volunteer the evidence.

In time, Sixsmith and Lee did discover the truth about her son, a remarkable story in itself in which he rose to great success but, much like his mother, struggled with a secret that brought him great fame and would indirectly seal his fate.

"Philomena" took second place in the "People's Choice" voting at this year's Toronto International Film Festival ("12 Years a Slave" came in first), and the film has earned enthusiastic reviews. Time Out London called it "a terrifically moving film that has a fitting earthbound feel to it," and Time Magazine declared, "Judi Dench gives a performance of grace, nuance and cinematic heroism."

But despite the film's wit and wisdom, the real life Philomena Lee is still scarred by what happened to her and her child. As she said in 2009, "I curse myself every time I think of it … Oh Lord, it makes my heart ache! I'm sure there are lots of women to this very day -- they're the same as me; they haven't said anything. It is the biggest regret of my life and I have to bear that. It is my own fault and now it is my woe."

"Philomena" will be released in select American cities on December 25, 2013.