Up until as late as 1996, when the last one was finally closed, The Magdalene Laundries were the dumping grounds for any young woman considered “fallen” by Irish society. Most of these were single mothers whose family had discarded them. They were forced into the various abbeys and convents where the Laundries were located and after giving birth had to work as slave labour for the nuns as payment and penance for the delivery and the sin of having a child out of wedlock. The children of these young women were taken from their mothers and “adopted” (sometimes this meant sold) by the nuns to couples from all over the world – usually Americans. Further compounding their crime the so called laundries conspired to keep records of all adoptions from both the birth mothers and the adopted children through convenient fires and other means.
While the Irish government has finally agreed to compensation for the victims, the public at large still knows very little about what the women who survived these horrific conditions experienced. While facts have been reported in various newspapers that might have explained things intellectually, they fall short in being able to reach people emotionally. Well, that’s about to change with the release of the Blu-ray version of Philomena by The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment. Adapted from the book The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by British journalist Martin Sixsmith, the movie tells the story of one woman’s search for her son who was given up for adaption by the nuns who ran the Magdalene Laundry where she had been confined.
Under normal circumstances, this is a movie I probably would have avoided like the plague. Usually this type of story is handled in such a way it ends up manipulating the audiences emotions with sentimental tripe instead of simply allowing the story to speak for itself. However, the combination of a cast starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the roles of Philomena and Sixsmith respectively, the fact Coogan wrote the script and it was directed by Stephen Frears (High Fidelity and The Queen), made me think it had a chance of avoiding the pit falls this type of movie would normally fall into.
On the surface the story sounds like some standard TV Movie of the week put out by Hallmark Cards. If it were to follow the typical cliches the movie would have the cynical journalist, Sixsmith, meeting the elderly Irish woman, Lee, and in the course of helping her discover what happened to her child rediscover his own heart. Not having read Sixsmith’s book I can’t speak for how he approached the story, but Coogan’s screen adaptation never once descends into the world of cliche or mawkish sentimentality. For while the two very different characters do manage to find enough common ground for friendship, neither really make any fundamental changes in each others character.
Sixsmith is a highly educated intellectual who served in Tony Blair’s government as Press Secretary for the Ministry of Transport. He went to Oxford University and served as a foreign correspondent for the BBC in Russia during the end of the Cold War and in the USA during the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Most importantly he’s also a lapsed Catholic who no longer believes in God. Lee, on the other hand, remains a devout Catholic with a firm belief in God and has worked as a nurse all her life. She’s kept the story of her lost child secret from her family as she was too ashamed to admit she had sex prior to being married let alone had a child out of wedlock. Like other young women of her generation she was firmly convinced that she had committed a sin through both acts. While it hurt to lose her child, she had willingly signed the papers giving up her rights to him as she had been convinced it was the right thing to do.
This dichotomy is one of the constant strains between the two main characters as Sixsmith can’t understand how Lee can still have respect for the institution which treated her so badly. Lee, on the other hand, can’t understand why Sixsmith expresses so much antipathy for the church and God. In one of the funnier parts of the movie after Sixsmith makes one too many comments about God and the church for her Lee retorts by calling him a “fecking idjit”. While neither character changes their opinions, they do manage to learn respect for each other’s beliefs and values. Sixsmith can’t understand how Lee is able to forgive the nuns for what they’ve done to her, yet he has enough respect and compassion for her to stop questioning her beliefs and to respect her strength. When he tells her he’d never be able to forgive them, she turns to him and says it was the hardest thing she ever had to do.
I’ve deliberately not gone into any of the details of what they discover about Lee’s missing son as I don’t want to spoil the actual story. However, in a movie like this what’s just as important is the way in which the story is told. Casting Dench and Coogan in the lead roles was inspired as both are able to make both characters not only alive, but believable. Coogan is perfect as the world weary and cynical ex-political spin doctor who originally dismisses Lee’s story as Human Interest fodder for the non thinking masses until he becomes almost her champion. Yet, they continue to be on opposite sides of the issue as his righteous indignation on her behalf is diametrically opposed to Lee’s more passive attitudes. She only wants to find out about her son and doesn’t care about retribution or vengeance.
Dench’s performance is all we’ve come to expect from her. She manages to give us a complete picture of Lee as a human being even while expressing what seem to be a set of conflicting emotions and beliefs. For on the one hand she misses her son horribly and desires nothing more to find out what happened to him and find out if he ever thought of her or Ireland. However, at the same time she refuses to blame anyone for what happened. Even when it’s revealed the nuns kept her whereabouts secret from her son when he asked about her nor told her he was looking for her, she refuses to change her mind.
While the special features on the Blu-ray edition of the film are minimal, they are interesting as they include in depth interviews with both Coogan and Dench, plus a nice feature on Philomena Lee herself. The Blu-ray edition also comes with a code so you can download a digital version of the movie to your computer or mobile device. However, what makes Philomena special is the movie and the way the story is told. If you desire you can do a search online and find out the story in advance as its public knowledge now and all the events and characters described in the movie are based on reality. However, if you plan on watching the movie, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of watching the story unfold in front of you on your home theatre system. It does the nearly impossible of going behind the facts and figures to get to the emotional heart of the story without ever descending into sentimentally.
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