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Last night I was privileged to have a lovely night out with a dear friend and see the film Philomena and I loved it. In the 1950s, an Irish-Catholic girl got pregnant at a country fair with a stranger and was banished to the Sean Ross Abbey in Ireland, where nuns forced her to work 7 days a week for 4 years to pay for the costs incurred to house her and her son. They refused her assistance during an agonising labour to birth her breached son and only allowed her to see him for 1 hour a day until they sold her 3 year old son for £1,000 to a wealthy American couple. 50 years later the now elderly woman still feels the pain of that loss, the ache of not knowing what happened to her boy. Philomena has repeatedly approached the Abbey over they 50 year period and always been offered tea and cake and lies that they don’t know anything about where her son is. When Philomena asks again, this time with journalist, Martin Sixsmith, she is told that all records were burnt in a fire but she is given a copy of the contract she signed agreeing never to seek information about her son.
Philomena’s daughter Jane meets Sixsmith at a party where she is serving wine and he is a guest. She asks him to help her mother and describes her story. Sixsmith refuses, saying, in his Oxbridge accent, that it’s a human interest story, and human interest stories are for “vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people”. While this was obviously a terribly snobbish and rude thing to say I couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud and nodding in agreement. Once Philomena (Judi Dench) and Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) meet we realise that Philomena is devoutly catholic, kind, caring, naive, and loves to read bodice-rippers, while Sixsmith is jaded, atheist, cynical, volatile, clever but increasingly caring towards Philomena.
Sixsmith calls the nuns at Sean Ross Abbey the “Sisters of Little Mercy” and all but one nun at the Abbey in the 1950s are depicted as mean and cruel and subject young “fallen” women to slave labor while selling the girls’ “ill-gotten” children to make money for the church. Even later, modern-day nuns act duplicitously by lying and burning records to cover up the Abbey’s past.
Philomena ponders subjects of class, prejudice against homosexuality, forgiveness, faith, and the abuse of young women by religious authority figures. It’s an emotional film of longing and friendship, loss and hope. At least 8 times raucous laughter was ripped out of me by the witty dialogue and yet I felt deeply for Philomena in her quest to be reunited with her son. I cried and more than once I was unable to restrain myself from speaking out loud against the heartless Sister Hildegard, who while Philomena was in agonising pain during a breached birth said that the nuns could not call a doctor because the pain was her penance for her sin. There is a very poignant speech by Sister Hiledgard, on behalf of the Catholic church, about how she has preserved her chastity her whole life and she is vehemently offended by females who enjoy sex.
New York Post reviewer Kyle Smith wrote, “A film that is half as harsh on Judaism or Islam, of course, wouldn’t be made in the first place but would be universally reviled if it were.” Philomena Lee, according to Deadline Hollywood, wrote an open letter to Smith, the film critic, saying, “Your review of the movie paints its story as being a condemnation of Catholicism and conservative views… This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith.”
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