The dignity of simple faith

Philomena offers a finely-judged debate on belief and forgiveness

“Do you believe in God?” Philomena asks Martin Sixsmith in the new movie Philomena. “I always thought that was a difficult question to give a simple answer to,” answers Sixsmith, “do you?” Philomena answers without pause: “Yes.” Stephen Frears’ film is based on Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee (2009), which is his account of his attempt to track down Phiolmena’s son, who was taken from her when she was 22, and the child six. She kept it a close secret until the fiftieth anniversary of her son’s birth and then told her daughter, who managed to interest former BBC journalist Sixsmith in writing a story.

The film tells of Philomena and Sixsmith’s odyssey, which is sometimes mournful, sometimes funny, occasionally heart breaking but consistently thoughtful.  Much of its power derives from a debate between the two central characters about the existence of God.  Philomena is an unquestioning Roman Catholic, whose unshakable faith is both a source of personal strength and the cause of her torment. Sixsmith describes himself as a sceptic and, as the film progresses, becomes evermore forceful in his reminders that evidence of a merciful God is hard to find. It’s a kind of running discussion that might have forced the two apart, but in the event it actually draws them closer together.

Philomena Lee was born in Limerick in 1933. Her mother died when she was aged six and she was brought up by nuns until she was eighteen. The nuns, the Sisters of Mercy, shielded her (and we presume other girls) from the facts of life and, within months of leaving the convent, Philomena had a brief sexual encounter and became pregnant. Disgraced, she was entered into another convent in Roscrea, Tipperary and made to do penance by working in a laundry. For three and half years, she was allowed to see her son for an hour a day. Then, without notice the child was sold for adoption. Philomena, then 22, signed a document not just giving up all claims to her son but undertaking never to attempt to see him again at any future time. After her meeting with Sixsmith, she began a search that took them both to Roscrea, then to Washington DC and back to Roscrea.

In the film, Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote the script) initially regards Philomena as a misguided believer; he explains his cynicism by reference to his trade. Journalists are taught not accept something as true just because someone says it is, he tells Philomena, as if to point out that having faith is exactly the opposite. Religious believers never ask for evidence, corroboration or inferential proof: they just accept truth as it is revealed to them by their faith. Sixsmith’s journalistic training inclines him to see religion more as a consolation for grief and anxiety rather than an aid to understanding. Irritated by Philomena’s convictions, he points out that, if God is behind all natural disasters, he claims more victims than terrorists. When she tells him she wants to visit a Catholic church for confession, he despairs. The Church separated her from her child and, in his eyes, bears responsibility for all her sorrow. So she has no need to feel guilt. Once a Catholic himself, he rarely misses a chance of mocking the concept of guilt as decreed by Catholicism. Toward the end of the film, when Philomena and Sixsmith confront Sister Hildegard, the nun who chastised the young Philomena and who they believe was responsible for the boy’s adoption, they find her unyielding and unrepentant. Now in a wheelchair, she tells how she has remained true to her vow of chastity. Sixsmith’s fury gets the better of him and he shouts: ““I think if Jesus visited now, he’d tip you out of that fucking wheelchair!”

Philomena takes some comfort in her ability to forgive Sister Hildegard and the other nuns who were complicit in the sale of her son. Sixsmith announces that he can’t and won’t forgive them. It’s a beautifully judged scene, full of nuance and ambivalence. You’re left wondering whether Philomena is just a kind-hearted, but simple-minded woman, or a mother whose unbreakable faith has somehow elevated her to a level from where she can dispense moral absolution and feel no malice. Her faith is intact.

Dame Judi Dench, who plays Philomena has said: “I can’t imagine myself being in that position and being able to forgive, … “I don’t have the scope of humanity that Philomena has.” Coogan acknowledges that his script criticises the Roman Catholic Church as an institution; but it dignifies people with what he calls simple faith. “It’s not a polemic, because an attack would have been too simplistic, and very easy to do. Of all the things that happened in the Church, people who have simple faith are often forgotten, and we wanted to dignify those people.” @elliscashmore