I have a new essay up at Bright Wall/Dark Room on watching the film Philomena as an adoptee, and how that first viewing prompted a search for my biological mother. Here’s an excerpt:
The first time I saw my mother was the day she gave birth to me.
The next time I saw her occurred more than 30 years later.
This is the story of how I met my mother.
If asked to name the 2014 Academy Award nominees for “Best Picture” without looking it up, a knowledgeable cinephile might be able to guess correctly by remembering the many great films of 2013: 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Her, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska.
But we’re missing one, an underrated gem of a film. Despite its near-universal critical acclaim at the time, Stephen Frears’ Philomena generally doesn’t seem to garner the same kind of retrospective praise (or derision) as its fellow Best Picture nominees. Philomena is a fine film in every sense of the word—it’s simultaneously admirable and adequate, both phenomenal and (apparently) forgettable.
I will never forget watching Philomena. It proved to be one of the most transformative moments of my entire life.
In the spring of 2014, I was both a pastor and an aspiring film critic, so Philomena seemed right at the intersection of my interests in faith and film. Inspired by true events, the story focuses on an older Irish woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench, in an Oscar-nominated performance), and her search for her son, who was taken from her by the Catholic Church in Ireland and given up for adoption against her will. A disgraced London-based journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), encounters Philomena and decides to help her in her quest, then write a “human interest” piece about her affecting story. It’s ostensibly an odd couple road movie imbued with serious themes (eliciting comparisons to Coogan’s The Trip films), a comedy-drama with Martin as the Oxford-educated cynical atheist and Philomena as the kindhearted Catholic simpleton. Philomena is a dramatic tale of forgiveness and faith, emotionally anchored in the invisible connection between a mother and a child separated by time and injustice. Philomena Lee’s on-screen story triggered something deep within me, something I had repressed and ignored for the majority of my life: my own identity as an adoptee.