Actor Judi Dench often plays unsmiling, all-knowing, uncompromising women who cannot be fooled, but in her Oscar-nominated role playing Philomena Lee in Stephen Frears’s film Philomena, she gives a unexpectedly soft, poignant and sympathetic performance that displays her versatility and range. The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, and Irishwoman who became pregnant as a teenager in 1951 and was sent to a remote Irish abbey during her pregnancy. There she was forced by nuns to work as a laundress alongside other unwed mothers, and was made to stay on working at the laundry without pay for four more years as penance for the sin of having had premarital sex, and to pay the abbey for the costs of caring for her during her pregnancy.
The practice of locking up young unwed mothers in what were known as “Magdalene asylums” or “Magdalene laundries” was common in Ireland and Britain in the 19th century, and it spread to other European countries and to the U.S. and Canada. The practice lasted well into the 20th century. The last Magdalene asylum in Ireland was in operation until 1996. At these workhouses girls were sometimes beaten, often locked inside against their will and sometimes forbidden to leave even after they became adults.
The Catholic Church enjoyed free labor from these women, and embarrassed parents of unwed pregnant teens were often so relieved to avoid the public shame of having their daughters’ sins paraded before society that many abandoned their children to the Magdalene sisters forever. Families often told neighbors and friends that their daughters had gone to live with family, or emigrated, or even died, all in an effort to save themselves from shame and social ostracism.
While these teen girls worked long hours in steamy laundries, their children were watched over by nuns in nurseries. At the abbey where Philomena lived, children were often adopted out to American married couples who sought children in return for generous donations to the abbey. Philomena’s much-loved son was adopted by an American couple and taken away without warning one day while she was working. She had no chance to say goodbye, she had no idea that her little boy had been flown to America, and she was not told that his named had been changed.
All her efforts to learn what became of her son were rebuffed by the abbey, which destroyed her records and denied knowledge of her son’s name and whereabouts. Ashamed by her plight but desperately sad to have lost her son, Philomena sought him secretly for a half century without luck. Finally, she enlisted the help of Martin Sixsmith, an out-of-work journalist and former government advisor to the Labour Party. Martin and Philomena traveled to America together and learned extraordinary things about Philomena’s son and the abbey’s deceptive practices. Their story of their adventure together was published by Sixsmith in 2009 in his book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, described by the L.A. Times as “a serio-comic travelogue full of heart-rending discovery and the triumph of forgiveness over hate.”
Previews made it look like a manipulative tear-jerker about a naive old lady with a can-do attitude and a big heart, the sort of story that could turn sickly-sweet in under a minute. Happily, it stars Judi Dench and satirist Steve Coogan, two actors famous for their droll, whip-smart performances, and it benefits from the tart and clever writing of Coogan, who coauthored the screenplay. He is known for his cynical, sarcastic portrayals, and he shows his dark wit in films like The Trip and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. In England he’s well known for his most popular creation, a character named Alan Partridge described as “a socially awkward and politically incorrect regional media personality.”
I knew better than to expect mindless, treacly antics from Coogan or from director Stephen Frears, whose smart, often dark films include Dangerous Liaisons, My Beautiful Laundrette (which starred a young Daniel Day-Lewis), Prick Up Your Ears (with Gary Oldman) and The Grifters (a dark little masterpiece with John Cusack, Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston). Frears has no fear of difficult subjects or ugly moments. Weighing all these facts, I put aside my worries that this could be a manipulative little feel-good flick. Happily, I found it a movingly acted film about an unworldly, seemingly simple woman who turns out to be more complex and determined than people expect.
The battle between the jaded, antireligious cynicism of Martin and the every-day-is-a-gift devout positivity of Philomena is at the core of the film, but Dench’s portrayal shows the spirited openmindedness of our seemingly old-fashioned heroine. Her sense of hopefulness and appreciation for small kindnesses is nicely balanced by exasperation with Martin’s dour, dark, angry worldview. He is not won over by her endless sweet simplicity, but he is moved by her because he recognizes that she has insights into people and situations that he, with all his experience and inside information but lack of empathy, misses.
Martin recognizes that Philomena’s story is a door into a huge and devastating world of widespread, long-term institutional abuse of the most vulnerable among us: abandoned, pregnant teen girls and small children. He sees that she has a power to connect with people that he lacks because he is often closed to anything but the fulfillment of his own expectations and prejudices. The journey they take together becomes more tangled and difficult than they expect, and it becomes more personally engaging and meaningful than Martin could have guessed.
[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]