“the religiously deferential Philomena denies that she was coerced into signing away her child”
At the glitzy Dublin premiere of Philomena there was marked discomfort in the Q & A emanating from some of the victims of institutional abuses as the normally boisterous Steve Coogan made every effort to be inoffensive in his efforts to appease Catholic sensibilities. Coogan is the producer, co-writer and star of the movie, as journalist Martin Sixsmith who helped Philomena Lee trace her child, Anthony. The boy was taken from her during their incarceration in Sean Ross Abbey, a Mother and Baby Home in Co Tipperary, in the 1950s.
Perhaps Coogan didn’t really understand the politics of the issue. The politics of the church with all its abuses is indeed fraught. But he needed to be aware of this: that gentleness towards oppressors might be seen as indulgence of regimes that wish to keep us all silent, all stunted: childlike and contained.
The most startling thing to emerge from Philomena is the lack of accountability for what was in effect the moral theft and trafficking of the child. The whole issue of criminality was avoided throughout the entire film. Indeed the religiously deferential Philomena denies that she was coerced into signing away her child. At the core of the problem of the film is that this denial is taken at face value.
This important and still topical ethical issue has been sweetened and pressed into a glowing human interest story rather than a story of organised, criminal conspiracy. Philomena is a road movie for the politically emasculated. A Tinseltown bauble that purports to capture a moment in time that it implies is long gone. Comfortable history.
The whole reality of this film is sentimentalised through a naive and clichéd catholic spiritualism. In the book on which the film is based, the real Sixsmith wrote that “The nuns were lovely” and the mother superior was as “a friendly, educated woman … who had devoted her life to the care of disadvantaged and disabled people”. The film is more nuanced but there is certainly no judgementalism. Unlike for example Peter Mullan’s 2002 The Magdalene Sisters, this film is no polemic. As a result it lacks the catharsis necessary to make for even dramatic greatness.
The Mother and Baby homes like Sean Ross Abbey, Bessborough, and Castle Pollard formed part of a network of compounds where individual citizens were incarcerated and exploited till they died, made good their escape or somehow found themselves miraculously released. They were all of a piece with the Magdalene laundries, the industrial schools, reformatories, orphanages, mental institutions and indeed some ordinary religious schools.
The trauma of what took place in these institutions still permeates this society through the suffering of the individuals who were incarcerated there.
As to the brutal separation of mothers from their children, the likes of the Adoption Rights Alliance deal daily with sustained suffering as many both mothers and children are still not being given access to personal records, which can enfranchise the children with an authenticity, an origin. Punitive attitudes incarnated in the movie’s venomous Sister Hildegarde pervade in the often contemptuous attitudes of contemporary Religious Congregations and indeed the State.
There was an opportunity in Philomena to address these issues but the writers of the script chose not to do so. Nobody so far has been held to account for this practice; there have been no Garda or Interpol investigations; nobody from Aer Lingus or Pan Am which handled what was in effect the trafficking of the children out of Ireland has been confronted. No-one from the Garda, no-one from US Immigration, from Social Welfare or Foreign Affairs. We had to drag the apology from the Taoiseach in relation to the Magdalene Laundries and large parts of the truth have still been avoided in the massive whitewash of the Ryan and McAleese Reports. The complete indifference and lack of consequences for all those that were involved in the criminality and abuses that were described in the Ferns, Murphy and Cloyne Reports is dumbfounding. Closure is a myth.
Respect is due to all the victims of church depredation and deep respect to Anthony Lee who died searching for his mother – diverted by the lies of the very people who thieved him from his mother and continued the expropriation by robbing him of his mother’s whereabouts. But this story is not just theirs; it is all our stories. It needed to have indelible consequences for the church and state – otherwise the story is simply peripheralised, managed, alienated, othered.
It will take some time for society to extract the truth on this whole issue. Memorials at the Garden of Remembrance, hollow apologies, and atmospheric, politics-free films like Philomena can never be a substitute for the political truth.
With all that in mind – please go. It is well-acted and moving, though to ambivalent ends. And when you come out of the cinema, get involved, demand answers, seek the truth, change the politics, strive to right the wrongs.