‘Philomena’ Draws Catholic Backlash

Judi Dench plays Philomena and Steve Coogan plays Martin in "Philomena."‘Philomena’ Draws Catholic Backlash

Catholic leaders call Judi Dench film ‘propaganda’ and question its accuracy

By TIERNEY SNEED

November 22, 2013

Judi Dench’s latest film “Philomena” is scoring rave reviews left and right. But it is also drawing backlash from some Catholic leaders, with Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights calling the film “pure propaganda.”

“A half-century ago, an Irish woman gave birth to a son out-of-wedlock, and gave him up for adoption; he was born in an abbey, a venue that allowed the mother to avoid being stigmatized,” Donohue said in a statement. “There is nothing particularly startling about this, other than the fact that film reviewers are now all aghast about the ‘horrors’ these fallen women experienced; many are making reference to the Magdalene Laundries.”

Donohue also referenced a lengthy piece he wrote attacking the claims made by other films inspired by the Catholic institutions known as Magdalene Laundries, as well as a New York Post review that calls “Philomena” a “hateful and boring attack on Catholics.”

“Philomena” is based on the true-life story of Philomena Lee (played by Dench), who was sent to a nunnery as a young woman for getting pregnant out of wedlock, where her son was put up for adoption and sent to America. Many years later Lee was put in touch with former journalist Martin Sixsmith, and together they went on a journey to find her son, which Sixsmith wrote about for The Guardian and later in a book.

The film does not call the convent that Lee lived in a ‘Magdalene Laundry’ by name, but has young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) toiling away in a literal convent laundry. The Catholic institutions known as “Magdalene Laundries” took in not only unwed mothers like Philomena, but women put out on the street for a variety of other reasons – from being prostitutes to suffering mental illness to being victims of abusive families. There they were required to work a number of years, sometimes until their families were willing to take them back or they found another way of getting on their feet, and often labored in dire conditions.

Such institutions were in operation throughout the 20th century until as late as 1996. But activists have only recently brought the plight of women at the Magdalene Laundries to the forefront, pressing not just the Church but also the Irish government for not intervening. In February Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny offered a full-throated apology on the behalf of the government for what the women suffered in the laundries. The Irish government also published an 1,000 page report detailing the labor and emotional abuse victims suffered at these institutions (physical and sexual abuse also happened, but was very rare, the report found), as well as the government’s involvement in them.

The nuns from the convent featured “Philomena” also took issue with the film, however their complaints were directed at how their convent’s specific actions were portrayed. Speaking to the Catholic magazine The Tablet (via The Independent), a nun from the convent named Sister Julie said the nunnery never destroyed the adoption records or made money on the adoptions it set up for the children of women like Lee, as was suggested by the film. She added that one of the film’s characters Sister Hildegarde McNulty – who “Philomena” depicts as treating Philomena particularly scornfully – was actually very concerned with reuniting mothers like Lee with their children. According to Sister Julie, the filmmakers had informed the convent that they would be including and taking artistic license with Sister Hildegarde’s character, even though McNulty died in 1995.

When speaking to U.S. News earlier this month, “Philomena” star, co-producer and co-writer Steve Coogan admitted to taking liberties with the characters and chronology of the events in Lee’s life. However he said that he didn’t intend to make a film “overly angry” at the Church. It’s worth noting [mild spoilers ahead] that while Coogan’s character Martin – a lapsed Catholic (unlike the real Sixsmith, who is not Catholic) – becomes increasingly angry at the Church when uncovering Philomena’s story, Philomena remains steadfast in her own Catholic faith. She ultimately takes the moral high ground, forgiving the nuns that separated her from her son, but also vowing to share her story with others.

“It was important to me that Philomena dignifies her own faith — the little person who dignifies the faith, not the institution itself,” Coogan told U.S. News. “The institution lets people down, not the individuals who are just quietly going about their lives and have this simple faith. So I wanted to make sure that they were respected.”

READ: The U.S. News Interview With “Philomena” Star Steve Coogan

Philomena: Film Review

Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena. (Pathe)
Film Review – by  : October 16, 2013
The Lost Child of Philomena Lee was published in 2009, a book by journalist and writer Martin Sixsmith that told the incredible true story of a retired Irish nurse looking for the son that was taken from her by nuns when she was a teenager at a Catholic convent in the 1950s. Now adapted for the screen by Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen), Philomena is an engrossing if sentimental crowd-pleaser starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench in the leading roles. Coogan, who produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay, gives a superb performance as Sixsmith, the once esteemed journalist who is in need of rehabilitation after being unceremoniously sacked from his job as Labour’s director of communications. An intelligent but arrogant individual, as a former correspondent in Washington and Moscow he at first sees Philomena’s story as below his skillset, before journalistic intrigue arouses his curiosity and he agrees to help her find her estranged son for a newspaper article. He’s not the most likable figure, but Coogan’s nous for comic timing means the tone is never too serious, and his determination to help her endears him to us. Fallen from his high perch back down to Earth, as Philomena tells him, “their loss is my gain”. Dench is similarly sublime as Philomena, bringing immense warmth to the screen as the little old working-class lady with a heart of gold. From playing M in the Bond series to Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love, she’s known internationally for playing ice cold matriarchal roles. But as Philomena Lee she plays a benevolent figure who’s never questioned the harsh treatment she received whilst growing up in Ireland. They make a dynamic odd couple, the warm and humble demeanour of Philomena complimenting the snarky and cynical Sixsmith. Using flashbacks and real Super 8 footage to flesh out the story, their journey is one that takes them from England to Ireland to America, unfolding revelations along the way. Most biopics suffer from the problem that the story is more interesting than the characters themselves, but here you’re invested as much in investigative journalist Sixsmith as you are Philomena. This isn’t just the smart reporter helping the meek Philomena on her quest; he needs her as much, if not more, than she needs him. Here is a man who after playing with fire in Westminster ended up with his fingers very badly burnt. Mired in politics for far too long, it’s only through meeting Philomena that he realises the effect the state and religion has in shaping ordinary people’s lives, for better or worse. There’s nothing profound in such an examination, and it’s also not unique, with Peter Mullan’s excellent movie The Magdalene Sisters already chronicling how teenage girls suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church in Ireland at their now-notorious asylums. It’s a little too neatly packaged as a box office crowd-pleaser to leave a lasting impression, but as a touching film about faith and forgiveness it still manages to pull the heartstrings come the very end. Like the chick-lit that Philomena reads, this is a movie not made for high-brow audiences, but a sentimental crowd-pleaser that is sure to open up her incredible story to a wide audience. I can forgive it for that. Philomena is screening as part of the 2013 London Film Festival. The film will be released in UK cinemas nationwide from 1 November.
Related:

Forced adoption: the mothers fighting to find their lost children http://gu.com/p/3jnzd/tw  via @guardian