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Philomena review: suffer the women

Philomena green light Judi Dench Steve Coogan

A cry-till-you-laugh-dramedy about seeking lost family and finding new purpose; Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are fantastic. Seriously, though: bring Kleenex.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Coogan and Dench

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Oh, this is an angry-making film. This is one small true story within the inhuman real-life horror of the so-called Magdalene laundries run by the Catholic Church in Ireland, which imprisoned and enslaved teenaged girls and young women for the “crimes” of having sex, for being sexually abused or raped, or sometimes even for merely being too pretty. (Asylums for “fallen women” weren’t unique to Ireland, but Ireland turned them into brutal prisons in which women served long terms, and didn’t close the last one until 1996.) There’s little awareness of this other Church abuse scandal outside Ireland apart from the British film The Magdalene Sisters (which got only a limited release in North America in 2003), and if Philomena does nothing else but raise awareness of another institutional cruelty of the Church, it will have done an important service.

Yet this is not a work of muckraking journalism, and it’s not a movie about politics (Church or state), or “issues,” or anything bigger than getting on with life when Shit Happens. Her tenure in a Tipperary convent is all in the past for Philomena Lee (Judi Dench: Skyfall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), who doesn’t even blame the Church for locking her up and taking away the son she had out of wedlock in the 1950s. She still goes to Mass, even. But she has always wondered what became of her beautiful little Anthony after he was “adopted by” — read: sold to — a rich American couple at the age of three.

Enter British journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan [Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, Despicable Me 2], who also cowrote the script with Jeff Pope). A chance meeting with Philomena’s daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, Becoming Jane), brings them together at a time when his career is at a confusing crossroads, and he agrees to help Philomena find her stolen son, and to write about her story. Turns out she’s been trying nearly her whole life to find Anthony, only to be stonewalled by the nuns at the convent where she was imprisoned, and of course, her son’s name will have been changed by his American parents. Martin, a former BBC foreign and political correspondent (and advisor to the TV show The Thick of It! — though I don’t recall this being mentioned in the film) has far greater resources and contacts at his disposal… and he also has a very different attitude about Philomena’s predicament: he’s angry, and gets more enraged the more he digs into the situation at the convent (which is still operating as this takes place in the early 2000s, though not as a Magdalene asylum). His take is not that Shit Just Happened To Happen to Philomena, but that Shit Was Deliberately Done to her, and how can Philomena be so calm about it all? (I suspect there’s more than a hint of muckraking in the book this is based on, by the real Sixsmith.) Even Jane calls what the Church did “evil,” but Philomena won’t hear it. She just wants to know what sort of life Anthony has, whether he’s happy, and whether he ever thinks of her.

I am very much on Martin’s side in this: every new revelation about how Philomena was punished for failing to be a “good” girl is worse than the last. And though director Stephen Frears (The Deal, Dirty Pretty Things) avoids phony sentiment, the bald facts of Philomena’s story are so awful that no embellishment is needed for them to be deeply affecting. I was in tears of rage and horror through much of the film. There is nothing “institutional,” we see in flashbacks to the 1950s, in the treatment young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) receives: there is vile spite and hatred for a teenaged girl who was kept intentionally ignorant about matters of sex, as would have been “proper,” and so had no idea she might get pregnant when she did that with a nice boy who showed her some affection, and she was punished in the most horrific way for it anyway. Even the one “nice” nun, who sneaks Philomena a photo of Anthony — a big no-no — is still nothing more than a less-than-abusive prison guard. The worst of the nuns makes it perfectly plain, if indirectly, that this job required women who hated their own womanhood to be the jailers and the punishers of the “fallen” girls.

What the Church did to women like Philomena Lee is disgusting and unforgivable, and I wish I believed in hell so I could think the people responsible are burning there.

Given what is depicted in Philomena and how angry it makes me, it’s remarkable how funny the film is, and how much it made me laugh. This could be the first cry-until-you-laugh dramedy I’ve ever seen. Frears finds a lot of odd yet wonderful poignancy in the clash of Philomena’s forgiveness of all the sadness that has been thrust upon her and Martin’s fury at her story and the organized injustice that caused it is: both options come across as less than may be needed but already more than anyone should have to give. Dench and Coogan are wholly engaging as a sort of mismatched-buddy duo, and most affecting of all in their joint performance is how they find what’s positive and life-affirming amidst all the cruel and completely avoidable tragedy.

viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival


The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

US/Canada release date: Nov 22 2013 | UK release date: Nov 1 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated DtC: Destroy the Church
MPAA: rated PG-13 for some language
BBFC: rated 12A (contains infrequent strong language and moderate sex references)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
  • FunWithHeadline

    Excellent review, can’t wait to see it.

  • RogerBW

    Various things have been shifted from the book’s version to make the story more understandable. In particular, Sister Hildegarde was dead by the time Sixsmith visited, and he describes the nuns as “lovely” and the mother superior as “a friendly, educated woman … who had devoted her life to the care of disadvantaged and disabled people.” (Details at the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/nov/11/philomena-historical-accuracy-steve-coogan)

    To make an emotional film you have to have a villain, I guess, and it may well be more effective that way. But it’s not such a good basis for argument about the real world.

  • bronxbee

    several years before the movie, there was a play called “Eclipsed” by Patricia Burke Brogan on the same subject. she was an ex-novitiate who was assigned to one of the Magdelene Laundries. the theatre company that MaryAnn and I belonged to were the first to present the play in the US. the reactions by the audience to that play were the strongest of any play i was ever involved with. a lot of people were furious and told us that it *never* happened, and people with a grudge against the catholic church were making things up. but far worse, and more moving, were the people who came up afterwards and said things like, “I always wondered what happened to my friend, my cousin, my aunt…. she was sent away and we never saw or heard from her again. now i think i know where she went.”

  • bronxbee

    also, there’s a heartwrenching song by Joni Mitchell called “The Magdelene Laundries”.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    You’re not seriously suggesting that women who kept women captive for decades, in some instances, merely for having sex could be less than monsters. Are you?

    I’m sure there were some nice Nazi guards in the concentration camps, too. (Yes, I godwined.)

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    I’ve been telling that story — well, the bit about the vehement denials, anyway — to lots of people in London. The film is huge here. People are being very moved by it.

  • LaSargenta

    I never had a grudge against the church (I’m not catholic) until I was a flatmate of someone who was studying for the priesthood and who had a lot of higher-up-in-the-Church friends. Most were Society of Pius X, some followers of Lefebvre. Our split of household duties included me being the cook (he did a LOT of cleaning), and we were both pretty gregarious. So, I was present (and catering) lots of meals where there were some really open conversations. The Stuff I Heard…..!!

    So, now, yes, I admit to it, I have a little bit of a grudge against the catholic church. Of course, I don’t have to make anything up. that’s the horror of it.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    You should check out *The Magdelene Sisters,* if you haven’t seen it. As brutal as that film is, women who were in the laundries have said that it was a thousand times worse.

  • RogerBW

    I’m saying that the film changes things in the service of telling its story. Film likes simplistic two-dimensional villains who are evil because they’re evil. But that’s not what real people are like, and if you expect villains to be cackling caricatures you’ll miss the real ones who just want to get by, who don’t want to rock the boat, who may feel a bit unhappy about what they do but are sure it’s for the best in the long run.
    If villains were as simple as they’re pictured here, all you’d need is a No Cackling rule and you could avoid this happening ever again.

  • Mari Tatlow Steed

    There seems to be some confusion, generated partly by the film itself and fueled by the media, over the differences between Magdalene Laundries and mother-baby homes. Before I am accused of splitting hairs, let me start by saying I co-founded the Irish-US based group Justice for Magdalenes, which fought a 10-year campaign for a State apology and restorative justice for survivors of these hell-holes (my mother was one). I also serve as the US coordinator for Ireland-based Adoption Rights Alliance, fighting a similar campaign to give adopted adults the right to their original birth certificate and likewise fight for restorative justice for women and children who were victims of forced/illegal adoptions and trafficking to the US (my mother and I were both subjected to that as well). But I wish to highlight the difference for one simple reason: Magdalene survivors did receive a formal State apology in February 2013 and are now eligible for redress; survivors of the mother and baby homes are not, and this is still very much a fight we need to wage. I don’t want the public to be lulled into thinking, “ah sure, these women have all been sorted, haven’t they?” when they absolutely have not. Go see the film…talk about it and spread the word. This injustice is still something we adult adopted people live with every day. And not just those of us in/from Ireland: only four US states allow unconditional access to our original birth certificates, access which is a right for any other non-adopted citizen. Thanks for the blogpost and glad you loved the film!

  • Mari Tatlow Steed

    The nuns who were present at Sean Ross when Sixsmith visited had/have little to do with adoption. The property was turned over in the 1990′s into a centre for the developmentally disabled and run by the Health Service Executive. Those nuns would have been merely holdovers, simply still living on the property. Conversely, records for Sean Ross as they pertain to adopted people were moved down to Sacred Heart’s other former mother-baby homes, Bessboro, in Cork. And let me tell you, the nuns running that show until 2010 (when they were finally deregistered by the Adoption Authority of Ireland) were hell on wheels. The numbers of folks who received abysmal post-adoption services, were subjected to lies, incorrect information, marginalized treatment and even threatened lawsuits (for daring to share their stories on private online support groups which the nuns infiltrated) are legion. They were and continue to be villains, and now do the same shuck and jive in the media that the four orders who ran Magdalene Laundries did. They’ll take the media flack as long as they don’t have to make a formal apology, because as soon as they do that, it opens them up to civil (and possibly criminal) litigation. Don’t be lulled.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    The women in the movie aren’t simple.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    The movie does show the mothers doing menial labor including laundry. Are you saying that that was not the case at the real convent Lee was held at?

    One thing the movie does make clear (in a postscript) is that Lee is far from alone in having her child stolen from her, and that there are still many mothers and adopted-away children trying to find one another.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    An excellent movie.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    I’m looking forward to it. At the risk of sounding shallow, but isn’t it amazing the difference Judy Dench’s hair makes?? Compare to Lady Catherine de Bourgh in P&P and M in Bond.

  • Mari Tatlow Steed

    No, I am saying that the laundry done by mothers in the mother-baby homes was not of a commercial nature (with the possible exception of Castlepollard in Westmeath – this was another Sacred Heart-run home, and there is some evidence they took in small, local commercial laundry contracts; but it needs to be further researched). The women and girls were expected to “earn their keep” if they or their families could not afford the 100 punt it cost in Philomena’s time to pay their way out of the home before the child was adopted. So they would be put to work, often heavily pregnant, at cleaning, cooking, sewing, doing laundry, farm work and working in the nursery. But Magdalene Laundries specifically did large-scale commercial contract laundering and sewing for the public, hotels, prisons, the clergy and even the Dept. of Defence. The women received no pay or pensions for this work.

  • Mari Tatlow Steed

    Are you speaking for us ‘real people’ Roger? Because as an adopted adult and a mother of loss (reunited on both ends), I find it utterly disrespectful of you to hijack my or my mother’s experience, our narrative, and spin it to suit your needs. If you haven’t experienced it, you can’t offer a clear perspective or make apologies for what you don’t know. And for those few nuns who treated women in an acceptable manner (yes, my mother recounts one or two at the Bessboro, Cork home in 1960), why did they not stand up? To date, Patricia Burke-Brogan is the only former novitiate to go public. And Sr Stanlislaus Kennedy in her 1980′s book testifies that there was indeed abuse in Magdalene Laundries. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men [or nuns] do nothing.” Doesn’t excuse it. While things may not have been thoroughly black and white, we have yet to hear from anyone who fits the “shades of gray” category.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Ah, I understand now. Thanks for clearing that up.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    It’s incredibly how frumpy and old she looks in the film, compared to the sleek, cool dame she is her own self. :->

  • cecilBdemilo

    This is a marginal thumbs down for me. There were some definite yuks and Dench is great but it reminded me a lot of The Iron Lady – an exceptional performance in a movie that otherwise is pretty mediocre and treacly. The Magdalene Sisters directed by Peter Mullan is a FAR better and less sentimental story trafficking in similar waters. I enjoy MaryAnn’s reviews but sometimes I feel her politics get in the way of her objectivity. This may be one of those times. This is a tonally muddled composition trying to skate the thin ice between comedy and drama and at times it condescends and speechifies. For a truly great dramedy with a much sharper ear, try Nebraska. Not one of Frears’ best here but, again, pretty spectacular work on the humanizing front by Judi Dench.

  • Tom

    Regardless of whether you think the movie is good bad or indifferent or how actors dress or appear, it tells a story about corruption so sinister that almost 100 years on, it still goes on today and the Irish government and the catholic church are guilty of nothing short of criminal activity.
    We dont need movies to be ”better” or ”worse” than ones made years ago when it comes to this topic.
    I am delighted the movie is made, I have no idea when I will see it. For me it will be upsetting, being in the real role of her son.
    We need more of this. The waning pressure on the Irish authorities has now changed and now people who are not affected by this issue are made to think. Better still that it is worldwide! And Ireland might not be such wonderful country at all.
    Just remember, they’ve buried the Guinness peat aviation thing, they’ve buried the gay priests and rape scandal and up to now they have buried this……………..

  • Tom

    I understand that RogerBW is a former nun who used to ”serve” in Bessboro, hence the attitude.
    Shame here is the truth is hated by those who have benefited from the lies and those who have been hypocrites and are equally as responsible for what happened to women and children All 100,000+ of each.

  • film fan

    Incredible, heart-wrenching, true story. Wonderful movie. Judy Dench was magnificant!!….There are so many layers to her character and she delivers on each. The primary angle on this tragedy, through these acting performances, is one of the greatest bonds – a mother-child bond. They never fully stopped thinking of each other. This, through a lifetime!…..The male lead (dont know actors name)…he was spot on as well.

  • Howard

    MaryAnn, usually I read your reviews because your perceptive, intuitive nature frequently shows me aspects of films that I may have missed. I have no doubt that you did not miss it, but your review fails to mention that this is a film not about the horrible things that the church has done in the name of piety; rather it’s about a woman whose faith is unshaken by the failings of the church, and whose capacity for forgiveness shows that she is stronger than most of us, who would react to a similar situation with the same (deserved) self-righteous anger as Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith. I too share your anger, but apparently Philomena Lee was able to rise above such (to paraphrase the script) such an exhausting response.