Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Philomena [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L)  Irish Times (5/5 Stars)  Entertainment.ie (3.5/5 Stars)  Movies.ie (4/5 Stars)  RE.com (3.5/4 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (4/4 Stars)

IMDb listing

Irish Times (D. Clarke) review  coverage
Entertainment.ie (R. Cashin) review
Movies.ie (P. Byrne) review

CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review

LA Times (K. Turan) review
RE.com (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Philomena [2013] (directed by Stephan Frears, screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith) tells the true story of Philomena Lee (played in the film as a teenager by Sophie Kennedy Clark and as an older woman by Judy Dench) who finding herself unwed and pregnant as a teenager in Ireland in 1962 was sent to the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary convent at Seán Ross Abbey, Roscrea, Co. Tipperarary, Ireland, where in return for her stay at the abbey during her pregnancy she relinquished all rights rights to her child (who was subsequently put up for adoption, usually to parents coming from the United States) and then required to work in what's come to be known as a "Magdalen Laundry" (for "fallen women") operated by the nuns at the abbey for four more years to pay off her debt to the sisters.

Such was the situation of many unwed and pregnant teenage girls in Ireland up until quite recent times (far more recent -- look at simply the year of Philomena's case 1962 ... -- than many would hope or believe).

At the same time, the stories of the "Magdalene Houses" or "Magdalene Laundries" have been picked-up in recent years and used by anti-Catholic propagandists to beat-up the Catholic Church again as somehow _uniquely evil_ in this regard, when the Catholic League for Civil Rights notes that the first Magdalene Laundries for "fallen women" in Ireland were NOT even run by Catholics (nuns or otherwise) but by Protestants.  Indeed even before finding and reading the Catholic League's report "Myths of the Magdalene Laundries," I was going to note here that abuse of women in crisis goes back to at least the time of Jesus (with the Pharisees presenting him with the "woman caught in the very act of adultery").  And as any junior high or high schooler who's read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter [IMDb] (set in Protestant/Puritan New England) or Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre [IMDb] (set in 19th century so very righteous/Protestant England, and still keeping Catholic Ireland down ...) abuse and denigration of young women in crisis was certainly not an Irish thing.  Indeed, honestly ARGUABLY THE IRISH LEARNED THE CONCEPT OF THESE MAGDALENE LAUNDRIES FROM THE BRITS.  Finally, even current editorializing in the West regarding Muslim treatment of women (often gleefully crossing the line into flat-out anti-Muslim propaganda) ought to be tempered with the reality that to be a woman ANYWHERE 30, 40 years ago, to say nothing of 100-200 years ago meant facing all kinds of marginalization and abuse. 

That said, Philomena and her son's stories ARE BOTH AWFUL AND TRUE and hence need to be aired.  How else to atone, make amends, rebuild and go on?  Hence, I honestly encourage readers to follow the Irish Times' years long / continuing coverage of the issue of the Magalene Laundries.

To the film / Philomena's story: No one except her family and friends would have ever known of Philomena Lee if not for a series of coincidences:

On what would have been her child Anthony's 50th birthday, Philomena, by then living as a senior citizen in England, was caught weeping by her daughter with whom she now lived.  Asked why she was weeping, Philomena told her daughter (presumably in her late 30s / 40s and presumably for the very first time) the story of her first child Anthony, who had been put up for adoption (to the United States).

Some time later, Philomena's daughter, who worked as a caterer for various moneyed/"important" people events overheard Martin Sixsmith (played magnificently in the film by Steve Coogan) former BBC reporter, former press official in Tony Blair's administration, feeling sorry himself at one of these events (over having been forced to resign over something) and telling those around him that he was looking to "possibly get back into journalism again" (that or "writing a book on Russian History").  Philomena's daughter decided to come  up to him and tell him that she had a story for him (that of her mother) ...

Initially good ole Martin Sixsmith politely (actually not so politely) "declined" telling her that as a "real journalist" who's been stationed in places like Washington and Moscow and did, after all, only recently work for Tony Blair, he simply didn't do "human interest stories."  But after cooling down / having some time to think about it, he realized that this "human interest story" would actually be a very interesting one: "A little old lady, looking for her long-lost son, snatched away to America by the 'evil nuns' of Ireland of yore."  So he persuaded the newspaper that he was working for to let him pursue the story... probably THE BEST DECISION OF HIS LIFE.

The nuns certainly did their part ... by refusing to cooperate.  Coming back to Seán Ross Abbey, Roscrea, Co. Tipperarary, Ireland, and greeted by an African nun (vocations are down in Ireland as elsewhere in Europe ...), Philomena and now journalist Martin Sixsmith, are told by the (still white ... though now in a modified habit) Mother superior that tragically all records of Philomena's son's adoption papers "were lost in a fire" a few years back.  Interestingly all that seemed left from said fire was Philomena's little typewritten statement relinquishing all rights to any information about her child that she had signed back in 1962 when she had arrived to the convent "in crisis," a copy of said statement handed to her with the pertinent parts dutifully highlighted in oh so contemporary florescent orange in case she missed the point. 

But Martin Sixsmith didn't get to be a top BBC reporter stationed in Washington and Moscow and later getting a job working for Tony Blair by being a sop.  Over some Guinesses at the local pub, he's told by the villagers there the nun's "fire" that destroyed all those records was more like a "bonfire" set in the back of the Convent some years back because _no one_ recalled any fire damage repairs ever being done at the place (and this is the kind of stuff that villagers knowing _everybody's business_ would tend to know).

Hmm, so with no information to go by in Ireland, Martin and Philomena head off to the U.S. to see if they had better luck there.  Did they ever.  Having a picture (Philomena's) of 3 year old Anthony before he was adopted out of the Convent and knowing a little about the special circumstances of his adoption (that he was adopted by an American family along with another little girl from the place) Sixsmith was able to find who little Anthony became ... and what became of him.

I'm not going to say much more about the plot here except that it turned out that Philomena's son had ALSO gone back to the Sisters asking for help in tracking down his mother.  And he ALSO had been stone walled.

Well, "little people" get stone-walled and otherwise mistreated by all kinds of more powerful people all the time.  Except it turns out that Philomena's son turned out to have been "not so little / insignificant" after all.

To go further would really enter into SPOILER TERRITORY but honestly, Martin (played again magnificently by Steve Coogan) must have thanked (over and over) his lucky journalistic stars that he made the decision to "stoop down" and take-up this seemingly "inconsequential human interest story."

The blood-curdling question that the film lifts up, of course, is WHY?  Why would a group of Nuns (and really A LOT OF CATHOLIC NUNS of yore) endowed with RELIGIOUS POWER, would have CHOSEN to treat weak, marginalized people SO BADLY?  And let's be honest, our parents and grandparents ALL have stories of sadistic nuns hitting kids with rulers and so forth.  Not all nuns were so sadistic, but "the Nuns" were allowed (AND OFTEN CHOSE) to strut their POWER over the weak like that.  Again, why?

The answer that the film gives is predictable and laced with the religious justification of the time: The nuns saw themselves as "chaste" while these "fallen girls" were _not_.  So "they got what they deserved."

But I'd (again perhaps predictably) say it's more basic than that: PEOPLE (ANY PEOPLE) ENDOWED WITH POWER (ANY POWER) WILL BE TEMPTED TO USE THAT POWER SELF-SERVINGLY /  BADLY.  Why?  Simply: BECAUSE THEY CAN.  In this regard, I've been a many, many years-long Dilbert fan and in Parish life I've _always_ been a fan of distributing power across many, many committees to minimize the coalescing of power in ANY ONE PERSON OR GROUP.  Why?  Because power really does corrupt.  And various psychological studies conducted in the 1960s-70s to prove the point, including famous the Stanford Prison Experiment (which randomly divided a class into 'prisoners' and 'guards' soon found the randomly chosen 'guards' abusing the randomly chosen 'prisoners') and the Milgram Experiment (which tested the capacity of an 'instructor' to inflict ever increasingly painful 'electric shocks' on a 'test subject' even after the 'test subject' was heard _screaming_ simply because he (the 'instructor') was being told by a higher authority to do so).

In any case, the nuns of this little abbey in south central Ireland did terrible harm to both Philomena and her son, as well as to many, many others.  And they weren't alone.  Do we ban nuns?  No.  Even Philomena, portrayed as a life-long Catholic, would seem to not be for that.  But we need to learn from these mistakes and work on building / maintaining governing structures (both in Church and outside) that keep power distributed and not centralized where the temptation to use it self-servingly / badly could continue to cause harm.

Great film.

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  1. The most important thing you never mentioned was that the nuns would not have entertained a homosexual even less than an unmarried girl and his going there and being buried there must not indeed be true. That part I could not see or believe.

    1. Well this plot point proved remarkably easy to confirm: An article by the U.K.'s Daily Mail entitled: "Philomena Lee: To Think the Nuns Never Told Us that My Son Was Searching For Me" The link is: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-2451155/Philomena-Lee-To-think-nuns-told-son-searching-me.html

      "[Philomena's daughter Jane] secured Anthony’s birth certificate and wrote to the Sacred Heart Adoption Society, where the nun in charge professed to have no information. Undeterred, Jane put in requests to the Irish Adoption Board. Several months down the line, the Sacred Heart order got back in touch. ‘I am so sorry,’ the sister told Philomena over the phone, ‘but your son is no longer alive.’ It was a huge blow. ‘I felt like I had lost him all over again,’ she says.

      "The nun said she could divulge no further information, and the story might have ended there had Jane not been so dogged in her search for the truth. Trawling through the internet, she came across an adoption website with photographs of headstones at Sean Ross Abbey. Zooming in and scanning them, she found one for a Michael A Hess, a name that meant nothing, but with a date of birth that matched Anthony’s.

      "The inscription declared that he was ‘a man of two nations and many talents’ and that he had died in Washington, USA. Jane Googled him and his obituary bounced back. Michael Hess had been a brilliantly successful lawyer and a leading Republican official. He’d worked directly for Ronald Reagan in the White House, and when George Bush Senior became president, he had made Michael his chief legal counsel. Then, seemingly inexplicably, he had died, in 1995, at the age of just 43. ‘We knew instantly that he had to be Anthony,’ says Jane.

      "Jane took Philomena to visit her son’s grave – and to quiz the nuns at Sean Ross Abbey. They revealed that Michael Anthony Hess was indeed the former Anthony Lee and that he had been to visit his birthplace two years before his death. But when Jane asked to be put in touch with his American family, the nuns insisted, regretfully, that they didn’t have any details.

      "In 2003, through a friend, Jane contacted Martin Sixsmith – a former Washington correspondent for the BBC. He agreed to help and within a couple of weeks he had found Mary, the little girl who had been adopted with Anthony back in 1955, and also Michael’s long-term partner Pete Nilsson. Michael, it turned out, had been gay, and he had died of Aids. ‘I’d worked with gay male nurses all my life. That wasn’t a shock to me,’ says Philomena. What she yearned for was to know what sort of man Michael had been ‘and whether he had ever thought of me, because I had thought of him every day’.

      "In April 2005, Philomena and Jane met Pete at Martin’s house in London. ‘He was charming, and to be close to someone at last who had known Anthony was such a relief,’ says Philomena. She learned that Anthony had been adopted by a professional couple from Missouri. He had loved his mother, but had a troubled relationship with his father. He had been forced to lead a double life because of his homosexuality and that had troubled him. He had been tormented, too, by an orphan’s sense of loneliness and had first travelled to Tipperary in search of Philomena in 1977, only to be told that she had abandoned him at birth. When he knew he was dying, he asked to be buried in the grounds, ‘because he knew I would find him there’, says Philomena."

      Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-2451155/Philomena-Lee-To-think-nuns-told-son-searching-me.html#ixzz2qICGJWwU