Gordon is a young boy growing up in 1950s Dublin. Even for the time, he has an unusual childhood: he has grown up in a Regina Coeli hostel for unmarried mothers, run by nuns and sheltered from the larger world. Regina Coeli was both a haven and a prison in many ways, but Gordon has started to wander beyond its walls, where he gets in fights with the other kids. But he’s still surrounded by lots of love, cared for by his mother Cathleen, who works hard to give Gordon the best childhood possible.
His small world begins to shift when he and his mother meet up with a man named Bill for dinner. Bill is obviously wealthy, and quite interested in Gordon, who approaches this new acquaintance with great enthusiasm. But even with this first encounter, the small, cloistered world of mother and son begins to shift, even as it promises broader horizons.
Based on the bestselling book of the same name by writer and executive producer Gordon Lewis, this sensitive historical family drama — directed by Yew Weng Ho, from a screenplay by Ho, Lewis and Sam Hoare — captures both the challenges and pleasures of a unique childhood and a particular time and place. With its carefully composed, evocative images and an almost stately sense of craftsmanship, the often luminous images have a classicism that also matches the elegant, measured storytelling.
The narrative beautifully evokes the tension between innocence and travail in childhood, capturing both the wide-eyed spirit of kids while taking seriously the complexities of their emotional dilemmas and difficulties. Gordon isn’t aware of his mother’s romantic past in all its complexities, but his social status slowly dawns on him as he gets older and is able to observe other children growing up differently. The writing handles this growing awareness with great sensitivity, allowing viewers both to understand Gordon’s POV while hinting at the broader social pressures and mores that shape his life.
The heart of the film, though, belongs to Gordon’s loving relationship with his mother. Cathleen faces the stresses of providing for her young son on her own, but despite it all, the pair are deeply connected. Actors Fiona Glascott and Austin Taylor have a palpable bond with one another, and Glascott especially captures the many facets of a loving mother with a complicated romantic past — and a resulting set of hardships — that she tries not to burden her child with. But ultimately it’s her love for Gordon — and her desire to make sure he lacks for nothing — that causes her to reach back out to Bill and change the balance of their life moving forward.
Based on a true story, “Secret Child” covers the first part of Gordon’s journey — a second book, Secret to Sultan, has just been released — but his particular chapter is ultimately a tribute to an extraordinary mother, who strives to make sure her son doesn’t lack for love, even as they struggle as the “secret family” in a society that would rather pretend they don’t exist. This secrecy and denial may preserve the placid surfaces of “decency” for society at large, but it comes at a great personal cost for those it hides from view. While the promising ending belies an air of mystery that portends a more complicated story going forward, one thing is certain: Cathleen’s love for her son is the bedrock of their life together, offering a strong foundation that will launch an even stranger odyssey in the future.