Philomena: Finding freedom through forgiveness

Philomena: Finding freedom through forgiveness

Warning: spoiler alerts for Philomena – save this to read after seeing the film, if it’s on your ‘to watch’ list.

Last weekend I went to see the film Philomena. Based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish single mother whose son, Anthony, was taken from her at the age of three by the nuns with whom Philomena had sought refuge, it is garnering accolades across the board, and deservedly so.

It’s a compelling story, beautifully shot and well-paced. Judi Dench plays the title role, with Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who used his connections and investigative skills to help her track down her son, and uncover the truth of what happened to him.

The story opens on Anthony’s 50th birthday, when Philomena tells her daughter about the half-brother she never knew she had. Philomena has looked for him several times over the years and has never stopped thinking about him, but now feels the need to share her secret for the first time.

It’s a great story – a ‘human interest story’, as Sixsmith sneeringly calls it, but a compelling one, one about identity, hope, love and – Sixsmith again – evil nuns.

One of the nuns in particular, Sister Hildegard, serves to bookend the story. She admits the pregnant teenager to the convent in 1952, keeps a stern eye on her while she works off the penance they impose for her sin, and appears again at the end of the story, elderly and frail, as the sole surviving nun who knew both Philomena and Anthony.

Sixsmith suspects that Sister Hildegard knows far more than she has ever let on about Anthony’s whereabouts and, at the film’s climax, bursts into her room to confront her.

The nun is unmoved. Yes, she caused ongoing pain to a mother and child – and hundreds more like them – over decades, but she saw that as just retribution for the mother’s sin of unchastity.

Sixsmith is furious. He wants Hildegard to feel a sense of shame and regret, to experience some tiny portion of the pain she caused in return, but Philomena stops him. Quietly, simply, she says to Sister Hildegard, “I forgive you.”

There’s a stunned silence.

“What, just like that?” Sixsmith demands, outraged.

“It’s not ‘just like that’,” Philomena says, “That was hard for me.” But, she says she doesn’t want to be like him, consumed with anger all the time, “It must be exhausting.”

Philomena knows that harbouring anger against Sister Hildegard and the other nuns won’t solve anything: it won’t turn back the clock, it won’t put the wrongs right, and it won’t cause any pain whatsoever to the elderly nun who she will never see again. All it will do is cause her, Philomena, to live a life consumed by the bitter poison of resentment and regret.

The only way for Philomena to rise above the pain and move on in her life is to grant the gift of forgiveness, even to someone so undeserving.

Max Lucado once put it like this:

Forgiveness is unlocking the door to set someone free, and realising you were the prisoner.

Interestingly, I read a review of another film this weekend, that expressed a similar sentiment. The film is the forthcoming Saving Mr Banks (which I can hardly wait to see!), which tells the story of the making of Disney’s Mary Poppins.  PL Travers, creator of the magical Nanny, was very resistant to having her ‘Disney-fied’, and did all she could to make the film-makers’ lives a misery when Walt Disney brought her out to Hollywood to consult on the production. This is the focus of the film, but it also looks back at Travers’ childhood to try to identify the roots of the imaginative story. It reveals a tale of hardship and heartbreak, not least when her adored father died of alcoholism when Travers was just 7 years old.

Richard Sherman who, with his brother Robert, wrote the music for Mary Poppins, is the only member of the original production team still alive. According to the Daily Telegraph review, he found watching  Saving Mr Banks “hugely cathartic”.

“When he first read the script, he cried,” says [screenwriter Kelly] Marcel. “He said, ‘She ruined my life, but now I can understand why she was so horrible. I can finally forgive her for what she did.'”

Mary Poppins was released in 1964. That means Sherman has been carrying this burden of resentment, this feeling that ‘she ruined his life’, for half a century. She never knew. She died in 1996, and suffered not a single ill-effect from Sherman’s anger, yet he has suffered for all these years because he was unable to forgive her until he had what he considered to be sufficient reason.

Resentment, anger and bitterness are powerful things, they can wreak havoc in a person’s life, damaging health, marring happiness, and destroying relationships (even with those utterly unconnected with the source of the anger), but they can be overcome by the power of forgiveness, no matter how undeserving the recipient.

As Philomena said, it’s hard. It takes courage and strength of character. It doesn’t happen just like that. But it is the only cure.

How wonderful to see that lesson so simply and eloquently conveyed on the silver screen. It took Philomena from being a nice, interesting, average human interest story and gave it just that extra edge to make it a little bit special. I highly recommend it.*


* Content advisory: it contains a couple of instances of very strong language.

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