I finally caught up with Philomena, now that Judi Dench has been nominated for an Oscar, and I just have to say it: the movie turned me into a sobbing, emotional wreck, and not just because watching Dame Judi enjoying a hotel buffet breakfast was an emotional journey in itself.
The movie is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, who, as a young unwed mother in 1950s Ireland, was forced to give up her baby for adoption, while toiling in an especially horrible convent laundry. Fifty years later, with the help of an English reporter, Philomena tries to track down the son she hasn’t seen in over fifty years. And if you’re not crying already, just think about the scene where Philomena meets the nasty old nun, who deliberately made sure that both Philomena and her boy were denied any sort of contact.
I know that some crackpot reviewers have whined that this movie is anti-Catholic, but come on: this year there’s already been a smash-hit live TV version of The Sound of Music, with the glorious Audra McDonald singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”, so nuns really can’t complain. Although sometimes I wonder if gentiles think of The Sound of Music as their Fiddler on the Roof, with warbling towheads in matching outfits instead of superstitious Jewish villagers dancing with Manischewitz bottles on their heads.
Philomena is very manipulative, and every time tears well up in Dame Judi’s eyes there are plenty of violins on the soundtrack, but I didn’t care. The details of Philomena’s life are surprising, and involve everything from Jane Russell to the Reagan White House. And by about halfway through the movie, I began hoping that Dame Judi would also discover that I was her long-lost daughter, and that even though I’d been raised by a loving family on Long Island, I belonged with her, on the red carpet.
Reunion stories always destroy me, whether it’s Philomena and her child, Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton crossing the Soviet tundra to find each other in Reds, or that moment when I finally realized that my electric blanket was in the box in the garage, and not the Hefty bag in the attic. Of course, Philomena’s story is beyond bittersweet, and I really wanted it to end with Jesus appearing and telling that mean old nun, “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
My favorite moment of a nun apologizing occurs in The Song of Bernadette, where Jennifer Jones plays a noble French peasant lass who has a vision of the Virgin, who’s played by Linda Darnell with really great lighting. Eventually, the healing spring of Lourdes bubbles up near where Bernadette had her vision, and becomes a holy shrine, while Bernadette, in her later years, enters a convent.
A mean nun at this convent hates Bernadette, and accuses her of making up the whole story about her vision. Bernie remains totally sweet and selfless and likes to stand outside for hours, praying in the pouring rain. Finally, even though she’s never complained, Bernadette collapses and we find out that for years, Bernadette’s leg has been eaten up with cancer. When the mean nun sees Bernadette’s diseased shin, she falls to her knees and begs Bernadette to forgive her, for her doubts. At this point Bernadette just smiles sweetly, and her thought bubble reads, “Yeah, who’s sorry now, Sister Mary Asshole?”
No matter how you feel about nuns, Philomena will make you weep, and never allow Irish unwed mothers to clean and fold your sheets. The real Philomena Lee is still alive, and she’s been handling all of the media attention, and the controversy about the movie, with a wonderful grace. She’s so lovely that I’m going to invite her to our place for Passover,which would be a real blessing, if you ask me.