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Philomena – Stephen Frears – Touching, moving – but where’s the anger?

Judi Dench/ Philomena Lee

Judi Dench/ Philomena Lee




Philomena – Stephen Frears

The real Philomena Lee was in the audience with her family when I saw this at the wonderful Rex Cinema in Berkhamsted. She took part in a question and answer session after the showing. She revealed herself to be intelligent, articulate, perceptive and wise. These qualities perhaps developed by 30 years as a psychiatric nurse.

Given this unusual insight into the real people portrayed in the film the first, overwhelming question is why, in all that’s holy, Stephen Coogan’s script turns this extraordinary lady into a slightly dumb, somewhat submissive woman out of touch with the sophistications of modern life, more than a little patronisingly portrayed as very pre-occupied with taking advantage of anything she can get for free or on the cheap.

It takes Judi Dench, bless her, about half the film to invest Philomena with the authentic, real gravitas and intelligence denied her by Coogan’s well-meaning but deeply patronising script. Not for the first time, it takes Dench some time to rescue not just the movie but the richly layered, life-worn and life-enhancing character that is the real Philomena, from the patronising trivialising of Coogan’s writing. It emerged in the Q&A that Dench had refused to say one line “because it made me (Philomena) look too stupid.” Well good on yer Judi – but why was it even an issue?

That said, to be fair, both Philomena and her daughter professed themselves very satisfied with the movie. That is generous to say the least. Don’t get me wrong, Philomena is touching, very moving and the sheer cumulative weight of Dench’s artistic conviction, as ever, triumphs in investing a character with more depth and weight than a sometimes trite script conveys. As the British Film Industry gears itself up for one of its periodic chauvinistic excesses let’s be clear, not that it is what matters most, that the film has no chance of Oscars etc; though Dench certainly has every chance of picking up some well-deserved accolades.

How could the story of a naïve good Catholic teenager getting pregnant on her first foray into pubescence with a Sean-the-lad at the local carnival be unaffecting? When the overwhelming weight of Catholic, Social opprobrium descends upon her she is ‘forced’ by convention and custom into giving up her son for adoption at the sublimely inappropriate age of 3 years. We learn that this transaction was commonplace in Ireland at the time when Catholic-run institutions, inspired by a God-claimed obsession with sin and sinfulness, were not only piously instrumental in severing all contacts between children and birth-mothers, they also turned it into a nice little ecclesiastical earner by flogging the kids, often to well-heeled North Americans. Philomena’s ‘love-child’ Michael, whose very existence apparently represented the authentication of human sinfulness ended up in Canada and thence to the USA. We can only imagine the cumulative pressure; social, religious and emotional to which Philomena and the thousands of young women like her, were subjected to accede to not only signing away any rights to their own child but also any right to ever make any further future contact.

The inspirational quality of Philomena lies in the sheer human, maternal and filial drives that battled for years to find each other against the deception, institutional corruption and hypocritical piety of all who might have helped them. You will discover the bitter-sweet pathos of this process within the film – and it will make you cry.

But here is the fundamental flaw in the film: the anger is missing. Of course as human beings we should be tolerant: but equally as human beings we should not be tolerant of injustice. The trade in adopted babies like Philomena’s was systematically practiced by a Catholic institution that was at the same time exploiting the slave labour of thousands of ‘fallen’ young women in profitable Irish laundries – a scandal only just beginning to be properly aired. It is also by now a matter of mere empiricism, not prejudice, that notes the thousands of vulnerable young people of both genders systematically sexually abused for years by the very Priests in whom they placed their trust.

The real Philomena revealed that as a result of her experience she stopped for many years attending Mass – returning only in recent years but still eschewing Holy Communion. In the film her namesake is portrayed as restraining the less-than-convincing anger on her behalf expressed by Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith. Coogan plays the ex-BBC journalist advisor to Stephen Byers, Transport Minister in the Blair Government. Sixsmith’s notorious sacking was caused by his advice to Byers not to try to ‘bury’ bad political news on the day of Princess Margaret’s funeral; in view of the earlier debacle of cynically trying to use the US 9/11 bombings to hide other bad political news.

The responses in the film to the deliberated, planned, systematic emotional cruelty exercised by so-called Christians upon vulnerable young women, are far too muted; far too restrained. This was wickedness, pure and simple, enacted by an institution and its officers who above all others, not only should have known better but negated in action the very spirit of the faith they professed in thought and belief.

Truly, when good men and women are silent – evil prospers. If more sincere, good Catholics, lay and ordained, had been angrier and shouted that anger from the rooftops, over decades of systematic, known but concealed abuse, then thousands of lives would have been saved the traumas and destruction to which they were unspeakably subjected.

I’m not sure why Frears has allowed his film to be so fatally flawed by such a polite, submissive, utterly misplaced blandness of moral tone. I hate to say it but clearly, this implicitly ‘conciliatory’ tone will increase the potential market for the film in a way that a more trenchant, critical, outraged spirit might not. But this is popular appeal at the profound expense of artistic integrity. Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (2011) on an absolutely similar theme but within an Australian context (truly is Catholicism a world religion), was far more rigorous, far more critical, and thus far more impressive than Frears’ quasi-middle-class apologia. But then Oranges and Sunshine did modest box-office and wasn’t mentioned as a possible Oscar-winner.

Philomena was entirely successful in inducing in me a kind of comfortable, Middle-Class wistful sadness at Philomena’s story. Even the subject of the film herself seems to have been lulled into a submissive, resigned regret at how things turned out.

This passivity is subversive and corrosive. It really isn’t good enough. And no amount of Oscars and accolades will change that fundamental fact. These things didn’t ‘happen’ to Philomena Lee and the thousands like her – they were the conscious, planned, organised decisions and actions of individuals and the organisation which both generated, validated and eventually concealed the unspeakable treatment to which she was subjected. This was no act of God.

This quietly, subtly emotionally manipulative film is not enough – by a long, long way. The real Philomena Lee said that she eventually agreed to support the film because she hoped it might help others who suffered the same emotional and yes, spiritual, oppression. Well sheer publicity may grant her wish: but response to evil, reaction to cruelty and wickedness should be rigorous, committed and utterly unapologetic. Otherwise the truth will be distorted, sanitised and finally buried: and secret, shameful abuse will simply slither back to destroy more innocent, vulnerable lives. That is the truth that best reflects the Scriptural attitude of the very founder of the faith so vigorously professed but shamefully denied in action over many years.

All efforts to wring out of the current Irish Government and the Catholic Church full details of this shameful practice have so far failed. Such information should not be meekly requested on the back of a touching little movie and the embarrassment of publicity it may generate: full disclosure must be demanded and if refused, legislated for. Enough is enough. There is an outstanding debt to pay: and public recognition of the truth is its absolutely minimum requirement.

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