In new film Philomena, Dame Judi Dench stars as the titular Philomena Lee, an Irish woman searching for her long-lost son. The performances of Dench and co-star Steve Coogan carry the film, which is an enjoyable personal tale as well as a moving commentary on the destructive impacts of British class structure and the Catholic Church.
Philomena’s plot is compelling: When Philomena became pregnant in her youth, her parents made her a ward of the Catholic Church. She gave birth to a son who the church then sold to rich American parents without her consent. On what would have been her son’s 50th birthday, Philomena decides to try and find him, drawing in politician-turned-grouchy-journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) as a begrudging ally on her quest.
While Philomena is based on a true story, the film has a sticky glaze of artificiality. As the unlikely allies search for Philomena’s lost son, clues crop up in a timely manner like an episode of “House.” But the performances of Dench and Coogan are fun to watch as their characters play off their differences and learn to get along.
Many of their differences stem from the social biases of Britain’s class system. The more upper crust Martin Sixsmith tends to look down on Philomena for her common taste in frivolous romance novels and Big Momma’s House and for her deep-rooted faith. Meanwhile, Sixsmith seems detached from humanity—it’s revealed that he lost his political standing after saying that 9/11 was a "a good day to bury bad news." He initially feels above the weepy human-interest story he’s been forced to cover about Philomena and her son.
Indeed, the situation young Philomena found herself in was due to class disparities. Had she become an unwed mother in high society, her parents might have sent her off to live with relatives until the baby was born. No such luxury existed for the lower rungs of the social ladder. Philomena recounts how her father left in the care of the nuns, where she was put to work for “her sins.” While some Catholic abbeys did great things for the social welfare of their communities, the one Philomena lived at took advantage of its powerful position. In return for room, board, and baby care, the young girls’ children were sold off. The nuns' justification was the sin of the mother's warranted the punishment.
This is not so unlike the religious rhetoric from Republican and Tea Party lawmakers in the United States today who see no benefit in helping poor or unwed mothers because of their "sins." That sin maybe class, race, or education but the damnation is the same. By increasing the limits on sex education, contraception, and abortion, they are abusing their position of power to ensure women suffer for their sins.
At the end of the film, I couldn’t tell if it was a condemnation of religion as a whole (it certainly is critical of the Irish Catholic church) or more of a dialog in the way it affects people’s lives. With faith comes forgiveness, at least for some. In a convent full of nuns, Philomena stands out in one scene for eventually forgiving the nuns for taking her child away without her consent. Faith enabled this unregulated systemic abuse, but it also allows the wounded to move on.
It’s a question older than the Crusades: religion is used to justify violence and inequality, but it also gives strength to people like Philomena to deal with unbearable hardship. The movie is a bit of a puzzle coming from atheist co-writer Steve Coogan and the script grapples with these big questions of religion, class, and justice in a way that’s far beyond the typical teary human-interest story.