In 2009, well known British investigative journalist Martin Sixsmith released a shocking book about an Irishwoman's real life struggle to be reunited with her forcibly adopted Irish-born son. In "Philomena," which opens on Friday, actress Judi Dench plays the title role and Steve Coogan plays the journalist who comes to her aid. CAHIR O'DOHERTY talks to Coogan about the controversial film and his own Irish background.
In the deeply conservative, reactionary nation that Ireland was in the 1950's it was unthinkable that a single mother should raise a child on her own. The neighbors wouldn't put up with it. As well as being a terrific scandal it was also a sin. That meant there was no part of the experience of new motherhood that you could actually welcome. You couldn't even welcome the child.
When "Philomena" opens here on Friday on limited release, the low budget but beautifully made film will rub shoulders against flashier enterprises like the latest chapter of the "Hunger Games." But I have a strong instinct "Philomena" will hold its own against all comers. Featuring terrific performances and a tightly written and directed script by Steve Coogan and Stephen Frears, "Philomena" is certain to reach an appreciative audience. The story is just too compelling to pass up.
If you're Irish you probably have more reason to see this film than just about anyone else, if you care about the history of your country that is, and if you'd rather not repeat the darkest chapters of that history. "Philomena" holds a brightly polished mirror up to the outwardly pious country that Ireland once was. What it shows us is shocking.
We know now that for centuries unwed mothers, by the tens of thousands, were often disappeared to these so-called Magdalene Laundries, where they worked as unpaid indentured servants - slaves really - seven days a week, often for life. But the thing is, we knew then too, we just looked the other way.
To leave the laundries you had to be claimed by a relative or you had pay a fee that most of the women working there could never possibly afford. Few relatives actually claimed these women, fewer managed to pay their own way out. What made it worse is that, like Philomena, they were often forced to sign away all rights to their children and then watch as they were taken away by well-to-do adoptive parents (who were often American).
In "Philomena" Steve Coogan (the comedic actor best known for his legendary Alan Partridge character) plays the real life investigative journalist Martin Sixsmith, who's facing into challenges of his own when he meets a young waitress at a party who tells him about a friend who just announced, after fifty years of silence, that she had a child forcibly adopted that she would like to trace.
The friend turns out to be the waitresses mother Philomena, played by Dame Judi Dench, who has mastered the west of Ireland accent of her real life character. In other hands the role could have been played as a sainted pensioner versus the Catholic Church, but Dench injects real warmth and humor into the character, in her first outing featuring Irish accent work.
You won't know how much you've wanted to hear Dame Judi call someone a “fecking eejit” until she takes a swipe at the agnostic Coogan half way into the film. Playing Philomena, Dench has been given a complex and sometimes slightly batty Irishwoman, who turns out to be as formidable as she is friendly. Another surprise for many will be Coogan's Irish ancestry.
“My mum is from County Mayo and we still go back there a lot,” Coogan, 47, told the Irish Voice. “My grandparents left Ireland in the 1930's because of poverty and came to Manchester, where they married. She was a cleaner and he was a bin man [garbage man]. My mum was born in Mayo in 1933 and is the same age as Philomena. It was part of the reason I wanted to tell the story. She could have been my mum.”
Coogan spent all of his summers in Ireland growing up. “We all got on the ferry and went to the west,” as he puts it. “I feel very connected to Ireland and have been raised to always feel not quite part (of Britain). We always had this dual identity and the British establishment was kept at arms length.”
Because he's Irish Coogan knows better than many that the story of Philomena, a true story, is not the kind of material his mother's generation would want to embrace right away. But there's no question in his mind that it's a story that needs to be told either.
“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:
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