I’m a long-time Judi Dench fan. I have admired her versatility and subtle facial expressions in many roles, from “M” in the James Bond series to softie Jean Hardcastle in television’s As Time Goes By. She always nails her character. So when I saw ads for Philomena, I put it high on my to-see list.
The film far exceeded my expectations, though I can’t say I “enjoyed” it. I came away emotionally drained. Sad and horrific scenes kept replaying in my mind. The ending left me anguished for the women of the Magdalene Laundries and deeply unsatisfied.
I have to confess, though I had heard of Joni Mitchell’s song, I knew little about the Magdalene Laundries and this dark chapter in Irish history, which lasted from the 1700s until as recently as the 1970s. For others like me, I will explain that these Catholic convents—asylums run by various orders—were condoned by the State and played the role of warehousing society’s disgraced and unwanted young girls and women. Their original purpose was to deliver the babies of unwed mothers (some of them impregnated by their own fathers or parish priests), adopt them out, and reform the mothers, whom they regarded as “fallen women”—hence the name Magdalene, from the belief that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.
Over time, they also accepted delinquents sent to them by the courts, as well as young women who were mentally or physically disabled. The inmates all lived side-by-side and worked in the convents’ laundries, businesses that not only generated income but also served as a reminder that the women were forever condemned to cleansing themselves of their sins. Unless they could buy their freedom, they worked for decades without compensation. One in 10 inmates died. Over the centuries, an estimated 30,000 women were incarcerated in these institutions and subjected to this cruelest form of slavery—cruel not only for the physical punishment but for the relentless abasement of hapless young women.
The survivors of the Magdalene Laundries have been seeking restitution, and in 2013 they received a settlement from the Irish Government, but the Catholic Church has yet to acknowledge any culpability.
Philomena is a true story. It was first revealed by investigative reporter Martin Sixmith, who published the The Lost child of Philomena Lee in 2009. The real Philomena Lee is now 80 years old and has been making public appearances, telling why she kept the story of her first-born child a secret for 50 years and finally decided to go public.
The story is gripping. For those who haven’t seen it, all I will say is that Philomena, a naïve Irish girl who doesn’t even understand how she got pregnant, is sent to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, County Tipperary, where she delivers a son whom she names “Anthony.” She remains there with Anthony for three years until one day he is summarily taken from her and adopted by an American family. Against her will, the nuns force her to sign a paper swearing that she will never try to find him. For 50 years she mourns him and cherishes his picture but is terrified to initiate an active search. Anthony, for his part, spends his life looking for her. The two main characters—Judi Dench’s eponymous Philomena and Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan—are portrayed to perfection. The real Sixsmith claims he is not as emotionally dense, but he has accepted his character in the film “for the sake of Art.”
I found it fascinating to research the lives of the people behind the story. From what I can tell, the facts are entirely accurate. The only changes have been to draw the characters slightly larger than life, since apparently the screen demands it.
For us today it is difficult to imagine that getting pregnant out of wedlock was still seen as a terrible sin in the 1950s. The stigma even existed in the United States. I write about this in my book, Finding My Invincible Summer—which is why this story touches me so deeply.