Day two of the Keswick Unconventional Film Club was absolutely packed for watching and discussing Philomena. Directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, it’s a film which is loved by audiences and critics alike. It won a BAFTA for best adapted screenplay, but lost out on the four Oscars for which it was nominated.
Coogan first came across the true story of Philomena Lee in a 2010 Guardian article by Martin Sixsmith. The journalist and former government spin doctor had written a book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, about a single mother who, in 1952, had her illegitimate child taken away by Irish nuns and sold to an American family.
When her pregnancy was discovered, she was sent away to the convent in Roscrea to have her baby. Like other ‘fallen women’, she was effectively a slave in the convent laundry, working seven days a week for the next four years. Philomena was allowed to see her son, Anthony, for just one hour a day. Then without warning, when he was just three years old, he was taken away by an American couple who had paid to adopt him. She never saw him again and kept his existence a secret for fifty years.
During our discussion, it was moving to hear one lady – communicating via sign language as she is deaf – share how she had been put in a children’s home as a toddler and then one day was taken away having been adopted by a Canadian couple. Another lady, who grew up in Dublin, told us how true the film’s representation of Philomena’s story was to the Ireland of her childhood. Personal perspectives like these make film discussions very special.
Despite what had happened to Philomena (Judi Dench), she remained a devout Roman Catholic. Martin could hardly be more different: an educated, cynical atheist, he dismisses religion as ‘blind faith and ignorance’. He seems to be as driven by anger at the injustices as by needing to have his article published. When Philomena wants to go to confession, Martin bursts out, ‘The Catholic Church should go to confession, not you! Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I incarcerated a load of young women against their will, used them as slave labour, and sold their babies to the highest bidder.’
Martin finally comes face to face with Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford), who was responsible for much of the cruelty Philomena endured in the convent. He accuses of her ‘not being very Christian’ towards Philomena and her son, but Sister Hildegarde claims that, ‘The Lord Jesus Christ will be my judge, not the likes of you.’ Martin angrily challenges her understanding of Jesus’s values: ‘Really? Because I think if Jesus was here now he’d tip you out of that f****** wheelchair and you wouldn’t get up and walk!’
I’m convinced that Jesus would not tip an old woman out of her wheelchair, but the Martin the atheist seems to have a much better understanding of Jesus’s values than the nun. Jesus’s strongest words were directed at the Pharisees – self-righteous religious people, who ‘crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden’ (Luke 11:46, NLT).
When Sister Hildegarde says, ‘Self-denial and mortification of the flesh – that’s what brings us closer to God,’ she completely misunderstands what Jesus said about his disciples needing to ‘deny themselves and take up their cross and follow’ him (Mark 8:34). According to Isaiah, ‘all our righteous acts are like filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6). He dismisses their fasting as useless for coming to God (Isaiah 58:1–5) and says, ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?’ (Isaiah 58:6–7). Sister Hildegarde understands nothing of this.
Philomena’s understanding of her faith seems a little muddled, but she does know that it is about grace and forgiveness, not condemnation. John Risbridger commented in our discussion that in some ways, Philomena is about power: that of the Church on one side and that of the media world on the other. Neither come off well. The one that is positive is the power of forgiveness. In Martin’s mind, it is a weak thing, but in fact it is transforming. Philomena insists that forgiveness is ‘hard for me. But I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you.’ Hate and anger come easily to us, but forgiveness is real self-denial. Having been forgiven through Jesus’s sacrifice, we go the way of the cross when we put our desire for self-justification to death and forgive those who have sinned against us.