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Philomena is a distortion of the truth

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Friday, 10 January 2014


If you Google the recently released movie Philomena, you will find commentaries like the following: "Philomena is a film that's left grown men sobbing: the heart-rending story of a naïve Irish girl whose illegitimate son is taken from her at the age of three and adopted by American parents - only for the two of them to spend the rest of their lives searching for each other. What makes it inspirational is that it's all true" (Daily Mail).

The movie is already a commercial success, having grossed US$34 million in the first month of its release.

The movie has attracted controversy (very favourable reviews in the UK but some criticisms elsewhere), generally reinforcing strongly negative perceptions about the role of the Catholic Church in past adoptions (especially adoptions in Ireland). It is also damning (with one exception) in its portrayal of the (named) nuns involved.

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The movie is an adaptation of the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee (written mostly in the form of a novel), which I read following its release in 2009. The author (Martin Sixsmith) states in the second page of the Prologue that "everything that follows is true or reconstructed to the best of my ability".

I found the book believable in most aspects, though I did have a gut reaction (I grew up in Ireland, am agnostic, and am now in my sixties.) that some of the stereotyping in the book was "laid on a bit thick". The book describes a Dickensian Irish adoption system (back then) with deeply negative attitudes to illegitimate births, and portrays the nuns as generally stern and uncaring (e.g. in telling Philomena p.435 "I have no idea what you want from us", Mother Barbara said. "You gave away your child and the Church found a home for him. The Church acts on its duty of charity. Sinners like you should be grateful.")

I felt the "artistic licence" was taken to the limit in a scene (p. 434) describing Philomena's first return visit to Ireland in 1956: "In her hand she clutched a bag with her passport and ticket, and a bunch of photographs. When they made port in Dublin she said a Hail Mary. The Irish Customs Officers instructed to question girls travelling alone on Irish passports, picked her out as the passengers disembarked. "So were you over there for an abortion then? the senior officer asked. Did you go and kill your child?" The scene beggars belief. Passports were never required for passenger movements between Britain and Ireland, and were rarely carried back then. Abortion also did not become legal and widely available in the UK until the passing of the Abortion Act 1967.

I had three main reactions, when I recently saw the movie. While the movie was well-structured, well-acted, and captivating, I found Judi Dench's "Irish" accent unconvincing (she is no Meryl Streep when it comes to accents). My main shock, however, was the extent to which the movie depicted core events very differently to the book and to some key observations from an interview with Philomena Lee herself. (This is well worth a watch and shows her to be an articulate 80 year old rather than the "simpleton" portrayed in the movie.)

The movie has many highly emotional scenes but many events concerning Philomena and Sixsmith's search for her son either never happened at all or happened quite differently to their portrayal in the book.

  • There are two key emotional scenes in the movie that I have no reason to dispute. The first shows the young Philomena in 1952 screaming in pain during a forceps delivery. She is given no anaesthetic because the nuns believe she should suffer for her sin. The second (set in 1955 and confirmed by Philomena herself) shows her greatly distressed, as she watches from a convent window as her toddler son (Anthony) is taken away by an American woman.

  • Key footage of the visit by Sixsmith and Philomena to Sean Ross Abbey in 2004, however, is clearly contrived and at odds with the book. In these movie scenes the nuns are portrayed as polite but obstructive and very official.

  • In contrast, the book (p.441) portrays the nuns as near saintly. "The nuns were lovely. None of them had been there in the 1950s: Mother Barbara and Sister Hildegard were dead - we photographed their graves....The current Mother Superior was a friendly, educated woman from the outskirts of Liverpool, who devoted her whole life to the care of disadvantaged and disabled people, making Sean Ross a haven for youngsters with cerebral palsy and other debilitating conditions". According to the book, Philomena's daughter Jane also came along, a detail left out of the movie.

  • The movie also shows Sixsmith noticing a signed picture of a Hollywood star on the Abbey wall. He asks what Jayne Mansfield was doing there. A nun corrects him – it's actually Jane Russell. The movie gives the impression that Russell adopted a baby from Sean Ross Abbey. She did not. In reality, Jane Russell informally adopted a son from a woman living in London, but originating in Derry, Northern Ireland. There was subsequently a major scandal and a court case, after which Russell was allowed to formalise the adoption.

  • About half the movie dwells on events involving a trip to the US by Sixsmith and Philomena, seeking out what happened to her son following his adoption. Searching the internet and official records, Sixsmith finds that Anthony's name was changed to Michael Hess. Michael grew up to be chief legal counsel to the Republican National Committee and an official in the Reagan administration. He was also gay and had contracted AIDS.

  • The problem is that the joint trip never took place at all. Sixsmith, according to his book, was able to conduct his research from the UK, followed up by a short trip to Washington (alone and without Philomena). The many emotional scenes involving Philomena's alleged search in the US are entirely faked.

  • According to the movie, it was Sixsmith (during his fictional trip to the US with Philomena) who finds out that Anthony had died in 1995 and had searched for his birth mother. Philomena, while in the US, is shown proof of his death from Sixsmith's laptop. According to the book, however, Philomena was first told about Anthony's death in a phone call from a nun in 2004. (On their visit to Sean Ross Abbey the party had photographed a grave belonging to a Michael Hess. They later noticed that he had the same date of birth as Anthony and asked the nuns to investigate if Michael and Anthony were one and the same person, which was confirmed a week later.)

  • The movie ends back at the convent (another contrived scene). Sixsmith confronts one elderly nun, Sister Hildegard, who he had allegedly glimpsed during his earlier visit and had suspected of withholding information. The nun is unrepentant, and responds: "Let me tell you something. I have kept my vow of chastity my whole life. Self-denial and mortification of the flesh is what brings us closer to God. Those girls have nobody to blame except themselves." Philomena subsequently locates Anthony/Michael's grave (where his ashes had been interred in 1996 according to the book).

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There is no doubt that the nuns are unfairly portrayed in the movie. All the scenes involving the seemingly formidable Sister Hildegard are contrived. Sister Hildegard in real life died in 1995. This is acknowledged in the book, so that she was long dead by the time of Sixsmith, Philomena and daughter Jane's visit in 2004. Critics of the movie say it uses faked scenes of Sister Hildegard to personify her as the principal villain and embodiment of all the Catholic Church's most vicious tendencies.

A major omission of the movie was its lack of reference to Philomena's growing-up. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was six, and her father could not cope. Philomena and her three sisters were put into a convent orphanage, which he rarely visited. The nuns provided a good education, though she was left ignorant about sexual matters, and became pregnant shortly after finishing school. She was taken in by Sean Ross Abbey after her family disowned her, with the nuns providing the only available refuge. The movie also fails to mention that, two weeks after her son Anthony was adopted, the nuns arranged paid employment for Philomena at a school in Liverpool so that she could get on with her life, eventually becoming a nurse.

Some reviewers suggest that the adoption of Philomena's child was forced. The book notes that Philomena signed adoption papers in June 1955 and the adoption took place the following December. Philomena would have liked to have kept her child but has publicly acknowledged that this would have been impossible.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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