Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction—or, to be more accurate, the truth is all you need for a great movie. Such is the case with Best Picture nominee Philomena, starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.
The True Story
In 1951, 18-year-old Philomena Lee met a young man at a carnival in Limerick, Ireland who bought her a toffee apple and gave her her first kiss. On July 5, 1952, long after the fair-going man was gone, Philomena gave birth to his son at the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland, where her family—ashamed at finding Philomena pregnant and unwed—had sent her.
Since Philomena couldn’t pay for the medical services and lodging she received at the convent (which amounted to £100), she paid her dues by living and working in the laundry there for the next three years. During that time, she was allowed to see her son, Anthony, for one hour each day. Then, in 1955, Philomena watched hopelessly as Anthony was loaded into the backseat of a stranger’s car and taken from the convent, from the country, and from her life. Forever.
Unbeknownst to Philomena, the nuns at the convent had put Anthony Lee up for adoption and an American family who had come to adopt a little girl took him home (in exchange for a £1,000 “donation"). The nuns told Philomena that since she was unable to provide her son with a good life, they had found a Catholic family in the U.S. who could. She was told that if she ever spoke a word about her pregnancy, her son, or the adoption, she would burn in the fires of hell. Her suffering, they said, was penance for her shameful sin.
Philomena took the nuns’ harsh words seriously and kept her ordeal secret for 50 years, telling the truth only to her first husband, John Libberton. In 2002, Philomena finally told her adult daughter, Jane, about Anthony. Jane immediately joined in the search for her long lost brother and, after several months, discovered that Anthony had died in 1995 at the age of 43.
Anthony’s adoptive parents, Philomena learned, had renamed him Michael A. Hess. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1977, and then went on to receive his law degree from George Washington University. Hess, who was openly gay, then pursued a political career, rising through the ranks in Washington D.C. and eventually becoming chief legal counsel to the first Bush Administration. In the late ‘80s, Hess was diagnosed with AIDS.
Before he died, Hess—who had been told nothing of his birth mother except that she abandoned him—had also searched for information regarding his past. In 1977, Hess traveled to Sean Ross to question the nuns about his origins, only to be sent away with nothing. In 1993, knowing he was dying, Hess made one last trip to Ireland; again, the nuns provided no information. The man once known as Anthony Lee made a large donation to Sean Ross Abbey in exchange for permission to be buried in the graveyard there, hoping that his mother would find him someday—and that’s exactly how it happened. Jane was searching through photos of headstones at the convent when she discovered one that matched Anthony’s birthdate.
Philomena’s story sounds like a dramatic tale engineered just for Hollywood, but the film actually sticks pretty closely to the facts. The screenplay was based on the 2011 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by British journalist Martin Sixsmith. Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan in the film) worked closely with Jane and Philomena for years to unravel the true story of Anthony’s life, even traveling to the U.S. and the White House to investigate.
Though the film takes a few liberties for dramatic effect—for example, there’s a scene where a nun confronts the adult Philomena and berates her for the “mistake” she made as an 18-year-old—for the most part, what you see in the movie is the tragic truth.