It is funny how the word “slavery” never seems to come up. When I treated myself to a couple of reviews or synopses of Stephen Frears’ sobering Philomena, I learn that the title character was “forced to live in a convent” from the IMDB synopsis. Meanwhile, the critic Susan Wloszczyna noted “traumatic circumstances that caused her to be separated from her child, and the vow of silence about the matter that was forced upon her”. But neither of these depictions really get to the heart of what the Magdalene Laundries were. The Laundries, part of a system of Catholic asylums for fallen women, had been operating since the 18th century all around the world. Now, “fallen” can mean a lot of things, like say getting pregnant without being married. In any case, the women were sullied now and thrown to these laundries where they were forced into unpaid labor without any freedom to leave. This is by any functional definition slavery obviously – and it’s a form of slavery that existed in Ireland until as recently as 1996.
Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) was one of these victims. In flashback, we see her as she is thrown into a convent, forced to give birth to her child without drugs as penance, only to see the baby sold to adoption while she was in choir practice. Fifty years later, she continues to think about her lost son every day, wondering where he went. This slavery is deep in her bones, even as an old lady 50 years removed from the original atrocity. Even when she goes to the Abbey where many of the old nuns live, she still is deferential, not wanting to cause trouble and almost apologetic about imposing.
This conundrum – the combination of deep scarring and still devoutness to the institution that effected it – is hard for Martin Sixsmith to get around. Sixsmith, we learn, is a former press secretary, and is now back in the journalism world. He has his Oxford, city slicker sort of superiority well in tow, and he just wants a fuzzy piece to help him pay the bills and keep his editor (Michelle Fairley, neck scar healed) happy. For him, the rejection of spirituality happened a long time ago, it is hard not to feel annoyed when Philomena gets the runaround at the Abbey. How did Philomena’s records get lost in the fire, as they explained? When he visits the bar afterwards, an alternative version of the fire emerges, and suddenly Sixsmith thinks he can help – and even better, that help would make a hell of a story.
The film at this point settles into a character study as Sixsmith has to ride in cars with the terribly dowdy Philomena as they travel and follow leads, including to the United States, to try to track down the truth about where Philomena’s son has gone. I won’t spoil the plot much here, as the twists and where the story goes cannot be predicted, and are worth keeping wrapped up. At the same time, much can be said about the character study at work, and Dench and Coogan are terrific here, in decidedly different work than normal. For Dench, the head of James Bond’s Secret Service, to play a truly old, eccentric, feeble (well, at least physically) woman is just not the sort of way that I have experienced her. She is great particularly in scenes like the aforementioned at the Abbey, where you see her inner religious convictions in conflict with the horror levied on her by the Church which instilled the conviction. Coogan in a non-comic role (he is a co-writer here) captures Martin’s stiffness when dealing with the old lady – flexing soft skills he largely doesn’t have – and then captures his anger and sense of injustice as things start to develop.
But I go back to the slavery, and the shaming that came with Philomena’s Irish Catholc experience, and it is hard to forget. It is hard for me to ever fathom how such cruelty can exist, and how so many people looked away. When I watch Dench’s performance throughout, you see the damage that the Church did to her, and how she has never fully resolved it. It also makes her triumph particularly acute – even if what she has won is really a chance for some closure.