The girls toiled in laundries under sweat shop conditions, were shown little compassion and only were allowed to see their kids for an hour a day.
We've had other movies about women who found themselves in Magdalene asylums, notably 2002's The Magdalene Sisters, a tough drama written and directed by actor Peter Mullan. But this one is different, a movie that derives its tone from its main character, Philomena Lee, a woman who was not defeated by terrible early experiences.
Working from a script by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (based on The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith), Frears tempers outrage with comic elements and with the resolved but gentle spirit of his main character, played with tenacity and humor by Judi Dench, an actress whose gifts are well known.
In 1952, the pregnant Philomena was placed in a Magdalene laundry by a father who rejected her and who regarded her as a fallen woman deserving of eternal shame. To make matters worse, Philomena -- played in early scenes by Sophie Kennedy Clark -- had to endure the agonies of unwanted separation from her three-year-old son after the boy was adopted by a well-heeled American couple.
Most of the story takes place some 50 years after this emotionally devastating event. Philomena -- now in her 70s -- wants to locate the son who was taken from her. All she knows is that the boy was brought to the U.S.
To help her, Philomena enlists the services of Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a journalist who lost his job as a PR man in the Blair administration. At professional loose ends, Coogan's Sixsmith initially resists any involvement with what he considers a potentially mawkish human interest story.
Obviously, Sixsmith ultimately signs on, his interest fueled by a sense of anger at the injustice suffered by Philomena. Sixsmith is a fallen away Catholic, an atheist and a staunch critic of the church.
Ironically, Philomena, who has far more reason to be bitter about religion, hasn't forsaken her faith. She seems to have accepted the fact that the world of her girlhood mostly has vanished. She even makes a point of telling Sixsmith that some of the nuns she encountered were kind.
Moreover, Philomena's attitudes about sex are surprisingly relaxed. She remembers her early encounter with the young man who got her pregnant as entirely pleasurable.
In a telling image, Philomena looks at a suggestive billboard in an airport: Dench's face registers recognition of the impossibly wide gap that has opened between what Philomena experienced as a girl and contemporary norms regarding sexual behavior. Had she been born 50 years later, her story would have been impossible.
Coogan, who normally plays comic roles, brings welcome restraint to his portrayal of a journalist who eventually finds the spark that ignites his indignation. Unlike Philomena, Sixsmith has no interest in forgiving the nuns who once made her life a living hell and who continued to deceive her as an adult.
Frears lightens the mood with odd-couple contrasts that emerge when Philomena and Sixsmith travel to the U.S. in search of her son. Sixsmith greets Philomena's devotion to romance novels with eye-rolling elitism. He's also put off by her lack of taste, expressed by her delight in watching movies such as Big Momma's House.
There's much more to the story than I've suggested here. But for those unfamiliar with the tale, it's best to allow its various contours to emerge in a theater.
Know, though, that Frears -- in workman-like fashion that serves the material -- offers a cinematic essay on tolerance, compassion, forgiveness and the way unjustifiably stern judgments can echo throughout a life long after the cruelty has stopped.