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Film Review


As Americans, we cannot really understand what enormous control the Catholic Church had in countries like Ireland until possibly the 1980's. It is no exaggeration to say that since Ireland became independent in 1922, Ireland was a theocracy, with the Church being highly influential at all levels of government and society, especially among the poor and the working class. Their social policies were very conservative, with divorce, abortion, contraception, sex education, etc, being banned. Books and films were routinely censored. The Church's influence began to wane with an improving economy and liberalized policies in Rome, and the host of Church related scandals that began to emerge. One was the revelation that thousands of Irish girls who were considered "wayward" had been forced into prison like facilities, Magdalene asylums, run by various orders of nuns, such as the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. "Wayward" could mean pregnant without being married, promiscuous, simple minded, or even simply poor. The number is not known because many asylum records were destroyed by the orders when they realized how damning these documents were. The best estimates are that at least 10,000 girls were kept in the asylums since Ireland gained its independence. Most asylums had graveyards, with many unmarked and sometimes mass graves. Yet this system could not have existed without the tacit support of Irish society. Parents sometimes would send their pregnant teenage daughters to these places, and some spent their lives here. They were assigned new names by the asylums and often mistreated. Conditions were harsh and prison-like, with forced labor in the laundries as supposed penitence for their "sins". The laundries were the financial support of these institutions, but none of the girls were paid. Some girls tried to escape, but often the police would arrest them and return them to the asylum. Equally often their own families felt shamed by their out of wedlock pregnancy and would not let them come home. As one woman testified: "It made me feel like a horrible dirty person all my life." These women became known as the Maggies. One Irish legislator called these facilities worse than prison camps. By 1996, the last Irish Magdalene asylum had closed just as the enormity of this institutional abuse against women began to be widely known through a series of books and films, especially the film "The Magdalene Sisters" (2003). This powerful film chronicled four young women in a Magdalene asylum in the 1960's and attracted much attention in Ireland. For years the Irish government essentially ignored the situation, but finally after a high level government commission confirmed the truth of these women's accounts, the President of Ireland issued an apology earlier this year. However the government refused to discuss any monetary compensation to these women, many of whom are now older and poor.

In 2009, a British journalist (ex BBC), Martin Sixsmith, published The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, which told the true, sad story of a unmarried Irish teenager, Philomena Lee, who became pregnant, and whose family placed her in a Magdalene asylum where she gave birth to a son. Much against her wishes, her son was placed for adoption, and essentially sold by the asylum to a wealthy American couple from Chicago. Although her family refused to accept her back, Philomena eventually was able to leave the asylum, became a nurse, married, and had 2 daughters. She had returned to the convent several times in an attempt to contact her son, but the nuns refused to release any information. Fifty years later, Philomena's daughter, Jane, asked a friend if she knew any journalists. Her friend did, and put Martin Sixsmith in touch. Four years of investigation followed, and eventually the entire story was uncovered. Philomena's story, and in particular, the revelation of apparent wide spread selling of babies, was shocking even in a country that was already reeling from other Church scandals.

Stephen Frears is an accomplished English director whose 20 plus films include: "My Beautiful Laundrette" (1985), "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988), "The Grifters" (1990), "High Fidelity" (2000), The Queen" (2006), and various television dramas. Sixsmith insisted that Frears read his book, and immediately realized the power of her story. "Philomena" seems to follow the book closely except that the journalist was only a very minor character in the book, but plays a major role in the film for purposes of advancing the story and illustrating the difficulty of the investigation. Essentially this is a two character film, with Judi Dench playing Philomena. Even though there is no such thing as a bad Dench performance, she is marvelous here. Torn by guilt ("I think of him every day"), at times indecisive and dithering, yet big hearted and still keeping her faith in God, she plays the opposite of Sixsmith, who is thoroughly cynical and obviously put off by Philomena's lack of sophistication and continuing faith. But Philomena is no weakling either, and shows it in unexpected ways. Steve Coogan, known for his comedic characters, plays Sixsmith, and is excellent with his touch of arrogance and contempt of nearly everyone. The film is constructed with continual flashbacks, beginning with Sixsmith's exam in a doctor's office. Philomena is introduced with her lighting candles in a chapel, and the memory of meeting a boy at a county fair, which changes her life. He has deliberately added touches of humor in Philomena's behavior, in an attempt to lighten a tragic story. This seemed unnecessary but didn't detract from the film. The story has many twists which I won't reveal, but "Philomena" is outstanding, and continues in the tradition of fine films by Frears. 98 minutes go by quickly and you leave having seen a memorable, beautifully crafted film about the life arc of a young Irish girl. Playing widely, including the Embarcadero and the Kabuki.

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