So When an Adoptee, a Kept Sibling and a Birthmother go to the Movies…
I have been purposely avoiding the reviews of Deanna at Adoptee Restoration and Lorraine over at First Mother Forum until I have finished writing my response to the movie so I don’t have my opinion colored. Now I confess, I read the NYT’s piece where the real Philomena Lee is quoted as saying something along the lines that “they made her look a bit silly” and that I did notice in the movie, though whether or not I would have picked that up had I not read the piece, I do not know. In other words, I have to get this posted so I can continue my reading pleasure! Anyway, we aka Lola, the adoptee, and Joanie, the kept sibling, and myself caught the 6:00pm showing of Philomena in the Hudson Valley.
I did have to run back into the house to grab the box of tissues; but the box did not get the workout I had thought. Of course, if I had forgotten it, I would have been bawling like a baby. Murphy’s Law, you know.
Philomena; A Very Good Movie – spoiler alert!
So, in a nut shell: Philomena is the story of a woman who’s 3 year old son was taken by the Catholic Church while she was interned in one of the horrid convents and forced to work like the Magdalene laundries. She, like many birthmothers, kept her first child’s existence secret until his 50th birthday when she tells her daughter. Her daughter hooks her up with a former BBC journalist who helps her find out the whereabouts of her son, Anthony who became “Michael” after being adopted by wealthy America’s.
In case you have not read a damn thing about the film, I will warn you and say that does not end up with a warm hug of a successful adoption reunion, but rather Philomena finds herself living the reality of a birthmother’s worst nightmare; her son has passed before she can find him. I almost had to grab for the tissues during that scene as she just crumples.. in the breakfast restaurant of the hotel no less.
Need I say that Judi Dench is spectacular? She pretty much always is, but she does represent the silenced secret birthmother rather well.
Yes, there are certain points in the film when she is noting how her son “could not have such opportunity” had she been allowed to keep him and raise him and I want to kindly yell at her “He didn’t need all this stuff! He needed you!”. Of course, that wouldn’t help anyway as she really had NO CHOICE at all and didn’t even get the curiosity of being told her son was leaving the county and it was too late anyway. I wanted to let her to know that she mattered, but she does receive that message in the end thankfully.
Overall, she is portrayed as sweet, but not nearly as backwards as one might want to believe. Much of that is shown through the viewpoint of Martin the reporter who does a great job playing “holy crap did this 70 year old lady just say her homosexual son had a “beard” to make him look respectable?” Now one might say that the light hearted banter like this was a dose of Hollywood trying to keep the story light. It seems to me that it tends to provide a richness and surprise which allows for character development. And then, there is the fact that I know first hand that in AdoptinLand, sometimes it is make a dark joke or just break down and cry. I can image that Philomena grabbed at whatever she could to keep her going on her journey.
Transformation from a Victim to Truth
Philomena is passive to a degree. I can acknowledge that there is a certain amount of passivity that comes with being a birthmother. We are forced to accept what we do not wish to. There is a certain aspect of “there is nothing I can do to change this” that is just the post relinquishment that is impossible to avoid. I personally found her transformation to be fascinating, though I longed for her to break out sooner. I gave a little cheer inside when she, after Martin has the door to Michael’s former partner slammed in his face, unstrapped her seat belt and marched up to the door. Of course, I still want to know why the hell the boyfriend would not just talk to them to begin with? At least he wasn’t quite as rude to the little old lady on his porch and let her in.
Now, apparently there is a big hoopla over whether the film is anti-Catholic based on a downright STUPID review in the NY Post and even Phil herself has been compelled to respond. I personally find it laughable that anyone would really be able to defend the Catholic Church for their role in separating mothers and children, but in the film there are parts where even Philomena herself seems to believe that the Nuns were only trying to help. The righteous anger over the cruelty and injustice was well played by Martin. There is a scene when he just get right up in an old nasty Nuns face and I think it is a fantasy that many of us have!
In our discussions after the film, I was most interested to find that we all had different pieces that resonated with us. Now mind you, there are parts that we all picked up on. Like why the hell did the sister Mary NOT ask about her own mother and why did Philomena NOT mention that she was best friends with Mary’s mother? That seemed weird, but I suppose there might be more of the story in the book. Yes, I still have to read the book.
When Philomena spills the truth to her daughter, Joanie says:
“That was me. I remember that moment when my mother told”.
Lola, the adoptee, got all choked up based on the film footage showing Anthony/ Michael as a child. Now I didn’t pick up on it but, she says that the looked sad and serious, but then would smile for the camera, but then the smile would fade away. She saw a people pleasing adoptee.
I, of course, found my touchable moments in Philomena herself. There is a scene where they realize that Martin had actually met Anthony/Michael and she just eats up all the information, however scant.
He said “Hello?” and he had a firm handshake?
Maybe it was meant to be funny, but there was buckets of truth in that. The first bits of information we receive about our children are the most delectable morsels of truth ever. I remember how thrilling it as to be told that my son kept a rubber chicken in a briefcase and brought it to high school. Useless fact to many, but to me, that meant that my son was an individual, a freak and still in touch with his inner-unconformity.
I also could completely relate to Martin’s discovery that Anthony/ Michael wore a gold pin of the Irish harp on his suite jackets. Oh, just a tiny clue that so many could pass by, but for Philomena it meant that yes, your son thought about Ireland and home and his mother… which of course, meant the world to her. Yes, I remember finding Max’s MySpace profile and seeing “Where the Wild Things Are” listed on his profile as a favorite book and calling himself “Mysterious Max” in his blog. These signs might mean nothing to anyone else, but to me, they said : Yes, Contact me. I am waiting for you.
And then, I really almost needed the tissues when it was revealed that Anthony/Michael’s dying wish was to be buried in Ireland and that he went to the convent to ask about her.
“He wanted to go Home”
Yeah, the “home” part totally gets to me.
What’s Wrong with Philomena? She Doesn’t Kill Juno
As a standalone movie depicting one women’s story to find her son stolen by adoption; nothing. It’s a great movie, but I do not think that Philomena will suddenly open doors and help people understand the truth about adoption.
For one, it is too easy to American Audiences to say “Oh, that was over 50 ago” and think that it is different now. When the directors of adoption agencies can threaten a mother with jail time and force her to sign relinquishment papers in the parking lot of a hospital, then no, adoption is not different now.
It’s still a battle to show that yes, society as a whole, not just one nasty dried up virgin nun, feels that birthmothers DESERVES to lose their children to adoption because they were stupid enough to have sex in the first place and must redeem themselves through a sacrifice. The social workers during the BSE times built a whole systematic removal of children based on this and even today, the marketing message promoted by the adoption lobbies use “redemption” and “sacrifice”. No, not much has changed here.
It’s easy to be outraged by the concept of “baby buying” but again, it’s all too easy for the typical NAAP (non adoption affected person) to assume that such activity couldn’t possibly continue on today! But then again, we still have a 13 billion dollar industry in the USA and really, adoption is often just a hairs breath away from being anything less than borderline child trafficking.
The problem I see is that Philomena might enlighten folks about adoption “then” but the same audience thinks adoption is all like “Juno” now. I don’t blame Philomena at all for that. It was not their plan and I do believe that it does show that he bond between mother and child is strong. Alas, he was 3 years old when the separation happened, not a newborn, so I am sure the average viewer will give more weight to that bond rather than the a DIA.
So, good movie, worth seeing. Yes, bring tissues. Yes, use the movie to open up dialogue about what it showed as wrong, but how things are still not much better. Sadly, I think we have to wait for the documentary on open adoptions being closed, happy adoptees wanting to search and mothers of DIA suffering throughout life before Hollywood changes it’s tune and people begin to understand on a grand scale.