Controversy has emerged over the anti-Catholic leanings of Philomena. Kyle Smith, a film critic for the New York Post, labeled the film as “another hateful and boring attack on Catholics.” Harvey Weinstein, the U.S. distributor for the film, subsequently published a full-page rebuttal in The New York Times. What’s all the fuss about?
Highbrow journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) begrudgingly takes on a human-interest story. He helps Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), now around 70, investigate what happened to the son that nuns coerced her to give up for adoption 50 years ago. Philomena became pregnant out of wedlock and she was adopted into a convent that sheltered young mothers in similar circumstances.
“Fucking Catholics,” Sixsmith bites out at one point, drawing pronounced cheer and laughter from much of the audience. This happens well into the movie, at which point the audience is firmly on Philomena’s side, and at odds with the nuns. Philomena is portrayed as an innocent, blunt granny; she’s exceptionally funny and charmingly likeable as played by Dame Judi Dench. Meanwhile, the convent seems harsh, where a young Philomena is basically an indentured servant. The nuns hardheartedly chastise her indecency for becoming pregnant, to the point that they are unsympathetic to her pain during childbirth and indifferent whether the baby survives the ordeal since they consider any troubles with the pregnancy as Philomena’s penance. The convent will go on to impede both Philomena and her son’s quests to reconcile.
The film is based on true accounts, as written in The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by the actual Martin Sixsmith. The purported use of facts renders the adverse depiction of the nuns more severe. The closing captions point out that “thousands more adopted Irish children and their ‘shamed’ mothers are still trying to find each other,” which makes it clear that director Stephen Frears is attacking a greater issue within the Catholic Church. Although the film shows Philomena as a devout Catholic and grateful to the convent for providing her son with a good life, the film is clearly indignant with the Catholic Church; is that wrong?
It seems like the Church could have better handled their adoptive young families, but at the same time they were generous enough to adopt young mothers who had nowhere to go. Films dealing with religion will inevitably be controversial, regardless of the angle of the portrayal. Narrative film has the power to sway public opinion on important issues beyond religion because it can emotionally manipulate the viewers to deeply ingrain a standpoint.
Philomena has caused a stir, but it also earns its tears. The audience was exceptionally receptive. Film is a vast art form, and it can exist as a sociopolitical forum, art per se, a story and more. While this film does take a stance on a social issue, it does so mainly to deliver an engrossing story, in which regard it succeeds. Master salesman Harvey Weinstein flamed the controversy to sell tickets. It is inevitable that because of this controversy more people will go to the theatres, most of whom will go home happy. Mission accomplished.