“I was raised Catholic, my parents are still very Catholic, but her story moved me, it made me angry and it made me cry. I felt equipped to tell the story. I knew enough about Ireland as a British person not to fall into lazy stereotypes.”
Unlike many British writers and actors Coogan isn't afraid to laugh at his Irish characters. “Most British people would be worried and paranoid about mocking Philomena, because she's Irish and because of the subject matter, but I think you can gently mock old Irish ladies. But I've grown up around them. Sometimes they say daft things. That's just a fact. You can have fun and take the p—s a bit. As long as you're coming from a place of affection.”
In the film Philomena is continually told by the nuns that the whereabouts of her son is unknown to them. This is not true. Each time she visits the old convent they serve her tea and biscuits and falsehoods. But even when she knows this she refuses to criticize the church.
Eventually we learn that her son, played by Sean Mahon, was adopted by a well-to-do American couple, who provided him with a financially secure if not exactly loving home. The boy grows up to become a senior operative in the Ronald Reagan administration. He has a secret of his own too, he's gay. It's a secret that isn't welcome by the openly homophobic Republican top brass, causing complications further on.
Philomena's son has been in search of his own birth mother for years too, we learn. But both are lied to and put off by the nuns who run the former laundry and also by the agents of the Irish state, who know the real truth. The are further revelations to come that are even more shocking. You'll be hard pressed to suppress a tear.
But don't imagine this is another bone headed bash-the-church flick. Coogan gives all sides their say and lets the audience choose who to root for. He's not a foaming at the mouth anti-clerical rabble rouser. “I'm not religious but I actually really like going into a church and sitting there,” he explains. “Because of the familiarity of it. There's something unchanging and comforting about it. I can understand that at the same time as finding the whole thing about sex just morally wrong and repugnant. In Ireland it can become polarized, you're either pro-church or anti-church. There's no room for nuance.”
The old clergy in Ireland are not used to being questioned, Coogan says. “Even now there's an element from them asking “who in God's name do you think you are?” When I spoke to one of the sisters at Roscrea in County Tipperary (where Philomena had worked in a convent laundry) she told me I showed “great impertinence” in going there. That's a different generation talking. For them an apology was a show of weakness. The hierarchy don't seem to realize that but the Irish people of faith do.”
The last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland closed in 1996. "Philomena" opens in the US on Friday, November 22.
Here’s the trailer: