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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Philomena

This is the second of two blogs about the topic of adoption.


IntroductionPhilomena

Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears and released in 2013, is based on the book by journalist Martin Sixsmith called The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. The screenplay is written by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, who plays Sixsmith. The film tells the true story of Philomena’s long search for her son who was taken away for adoption as a toddler, without her consent, by the nuns at the convent where she was staying. After becoming pregnant as an unmarried teenager, Philomena had been sent to the convent to have her baby and subsequently to work for the nuns for several years afterwards in lieu of payment. Such features of the film have stirred some criticism from Catholic sources although the film has generally received much critical acclaim. Philomena is played by Judi Dench who, together with Coogan, shines in a most unlikely but compelling road movie which is at times both funny and sad. Coogan and Pope won a BAFTA for the Best Adapted screenplay in 2014 and Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival 2013. Judie Dench was awarded Best International Actress at the Irish Film and Television Awards 2014. The film was nominated for a total of four Oscars. Sixsmith wrote about his involvement with Philomena Lee in a Guardian article in 2009 at the time his book was published. The book gave impetus to many adopted Irish children to search for their lost families.

 

The Film

Philomena begins with the difficulties Martin Sixsmith faces as he loses his job as a government advisor. At a loss and initially planning to write a book on Russian history, he is approached by Philomena’s daughter at a party, by chance. She asks for his assistance in helping her mother trace the son Philomena has been searching for for the past fifty years. At first skeptical because Sixsmith doesn’t write ‘human interest stories’ he is persuaded to do so after becoming intrigued by the facts that are revealed on meeting with Philomena. This results in an agreement to work together to trace her son Anthony, begining with a visit to the convent in Ireland where Philomena had lived when her son was forcibly adopted away. When no information is forthcoming from the nuns, and they learn that all of the documents pertaining to the period were destroyed in a fire, Sixsmith and Philomena follow some very tenuous lines of enquiry that lead them to America. In a thrilling investigation using many of his old contacts, Sixsmith finally traces Anthony, renamed Michael Hess, who had become a legal counsel in George Bush senior’s government. Sixsmith also finds that Michael Hess was gay and closeted even as he worked for a staunchly homophobic Republican party. Unfortunately the saddest news follows that Michael died of AIDs at the age of 47. As Philomena tries to process this news, they continue their search for more information about Michael by tracing his long term partner, Pete Olsson. When they finally meet with him he shares that Michael had been searching for his mother for many years and had in fact visited the convent in Ireland on two occasions, requesting that he be buried there when he died. Philomena is able to return to Ireland and visit her son’s grave satisfied by the knowledge that he had never forgotten her, although saddened by the reality of having lost him twice.

 

Relevance to the Field of Mental Health

Philomena  provides more material for learning about the psychological issues often raised by adoption, but this time from the perspective of the parent who loses the child that is adopted away. In this particular story the adoption took place without consent and deprived Philomena, as a mother, of the chance to say goodbye or to refuse the adoption altogether. Many of the resources that I linked to in the previous blog about Flesh & Blood remain relevant for use with a viewing of Philomena, in particular the pages on Attachment Theory and research, at the fostering and adoption learning resources online library, funded by the Department for Education.

This is a very valuable film, not only as a piece of social history that depicts a different attitude to parental-child bonds, but also because it reveals the consequences of such events for individuals still alive today. Whilst Philomena Lee was fortunate to get help and support in tracing her lost son, other older adults who have not revealed the facts about such losses in their earlier life may experience similar yearning in later life that might cause them to become anxious or depressed. As Mental Health professionals encountering such individuals we must be sensitive to all possible losses when seeking to understand why someone presents with symptoms of mental illness at any particular time in their life. By taking a full history that includes an outline of their whole life story we stand a better chance of understanding some of the complex factors that may contribute to their illness presentation. For anyone working in Old Age Psychiatry, this is an important film to watch.

 

• More information about Philomena can be found at IMDB

Philomena can be purchased from amazon.co.uk.

• Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida

 

 

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About this blog

 

Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.