A Two-fold History of Silence Exposed in ‘Philomena’

The real life Philomena Lee has had many trials in her life, namely the loss of her son to the nuns who had him adopted without her consent at the age of 17 and, then again, the loss of her son to AIDS when she went searching for him later in life. She found him where he had been hers, buried at the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland.

Heartbreaking as it is, rather than hating the women at the abbey who caused her so much suffering, Lee made a conscious decision to be a source of forgiveness for those she met on her path to find her son. Her’s is a story shared, in part, by thousands of women in Ireland, and one that UK actor/producer Steve Coogan thought should be laid out bare on screen. Coogan (What Maisie Knew, 2012) wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope (Dirty Filthy Love, 2004) and co-produced with filmmaker Stephen Frears (The Queen, 2006).

Lee’s story has been principally, and rightfully, brought to life onscreen by one of the most brilliant actresses in the history of film, Judi Dench. Told with aching precision and a sweet flare of strategic humor in all the humane places, Philomena is one of the most endearing stories of 2013. Never minding that this is a well-documented biography, over the past few weeks the film has been called specifically ‘anti-Catholic’, as well as ‘anti-Republican’. This kind of accusation can surely be made about fictional dramas when they lean “liberal” (which the film industry on the whole is accused of regularly), but a film that is inspired by documented events is a record in itself.

Records don’t have a party, but I get what that guy at The Post was saying: these tragedies are justifiable by the moral structure of Republican and Catholic authorities, and showing the pain the authorities caused -telling the story at all- is a leftist game, alone. In the wake of this finger-pointing, the Philomena Lee stood up for her story, saying that the film about her life is true to her peaceful and pious views. This was not enough to quell the accusations of those who don’t think this is a story that should’ve been told.

Well, never mind the naysayers. What can a movie do- change mind? Stop religion? Shutter Republican offices? Not so much. Unfortunately, film’s power is generally used to make people feel and entertain and filmmakers don’t feel comfortable taking responsibility for any greater impact, nor does society on the whole for taking in screen stories without considering greater meaning they could have. So, what makes conservatives so scared of movies that show multiple sides of an argument, as is the case with Philomena? The questioning Catholics, the pious and kind, the cranky, the angry, the forgiving…I suppose the film critics on the Right would prefer to have whatever can’t be consumed without questions burned out of society, and therefore film, without a trace. Perhaps the idea is that they should start telling stories of their own. I’m sure no one would call such a progress “anti-liberal”. A biography may lean to one side or another, but must we see it that way? Perhaps movies are where the sides can dissolve into discussions of events- sated by the entertainment factor the industry feeds on.



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