Mix of fact and fiction in ‘Philomena’ takes from its impact
Philomena is the movie to see – if you have the stomach for it. Though not everyone will want to submit themselves to such an emotional roller-coaster.
From the dark days of the Magdalene laundries, this is a story that encapsulates a thousand other stories of an oppressive age when pregnant, unmarried and unwanted young Irish women were ware-housed into institutions supervised by nuns, who lacked the resources, the training and, sometimes, the human touch to cope with the complex demands and dilemmas involved.
Finding a path through a maze of sub-cultures – religious intolerance, guilt, anger, judgement, adoption, control, regret – was beyond most of the participants in what was a common drama played out all over Ireland in the early and middle decades of the last century.
A teenager in 1952, Philomena Lee became pregnant, was disowned by her family and sent to a mother and baby home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, where she gave birth to her son, Anthony, whom she cared for while working at the laundry attached to the convent. When he was three, Philomena was forced to give Anthony up for adoption by an American couple. Fifty years later, and married with a family in England, she confided to her daughter that she had never forgotten her young son and thought of him constantly.
Martin Sixsmith, a journalist interested in writing up a novel human interest story, helped Philomena to search for Anthony. They drew a blank in the Roscrea convent but eventually discovered that Anthony, now re-named Michael Hess, had become a successful lawyer in America and had held the important position of chief counsel in both the Reagan and the Bush administrations. They also discovered that he was gay and had died of Aids nine years earlier.
It was a heart-wrenching moment, beautifully played by the accomplished actress, Judi Dench, and the nerve-chilling unfairness of it all was underpinned by the apparent refusal of the Roscrea nuns to pass on information about Philomena’s search for her son, Anthony, and his search for his birth-mother. Both, it seems, had continually kept in touch with Roscrea but the link (for whatever reason) was not made. If true, it was no tribute the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
I say, if true, because while no one could possibly condone the Magdalene lives of young women like Philomena, and the gut-wrenching experience of being forcibly separated from their children, it isn’t clear in this movie what’s fact and what’s fiction.
At the outset the film makes it clear that the account of Philomena’s experience is fictionalised. While the reality Philomena had to contend with can’t be denied or justified or contextually explained away, and while the central judgement the movie makes can’t be questioned, the movie takes some poetic licence in presenting Philomena’s story as dramatically as possible.
For example, the central character in the Magdalene home in Roscrea was Sr Hildegarde McNulty, who was the Big Baddie in the story, in that she is portrayed as vindictive and inhuman. Worse still, in a shocking scene at the end of the film, as an old nun she responds to an accusation by Sixsmith of thwarting attempts to reunite mother and child with these words: ‘Let me tell you something. I have kept my vow of chastity my whole life. Self-denial and mortification of the flesh is what brings us closer to God. These girls have no one to blame except themselves.’
The problem is that this scene is fiction rather than fact because Sr Hildegarde had died several years before so there was no confrontation between her and Sixsmith and she had never spoken those words. The scene never took place and the words attributed to the Roscrea nun were written by the screenwriter but never spoken by the nun.
While movies are made to make money – and this one is, by all accounts, a box-office success – and story-tellers tend to dramatise their stories to telling effect, the coalescing of fact and fiction into a kind of ‘faction’ inevitably takes from the impact. Though in this case there is no refuting the injustice involved and the emotional toll on the main participants, not least on Philomena whose strong faith helped to carry her through incredible turmoil and who seemed in the end the most rounded personality of all, understanding as she did the proper interplay between justice and mercy.
It might be argued, in the great scheme of things, that rubbishing Sr Hildegarde’s reputation was justified in the dramatic build-up – and RTE’s Liveline elicited different assessments of her tenure in Roscrea – but, even in death, others including family members and religious colleagues can pay a high price for ‘dramatic’ presentations, even if the intention is good. The movie didn’t need the fiction to present the fact as unacceptable and inhumane.
The makers of the film, Pathe, agreed that Philomena ‘is not a documentary. The factual scenarios have been changed but we believe the substance of the story to be materially true’. It is a fair assessment as no one, after watching this movie, could possibly question the fact that the thousands of Philomenas represented by this movie were subjected to a level of distress and trauma that was unconscionable. It was one of the darkest and most shameful chapters in the recent history of the Catholic Church in Ireland. All of us, citizens of this state and members of the Catholic Church, owe them an apology.
Interestingly, the only one who spoke in the movie about the importance of forgiveness was Philomena but then those who suffer most are always closest to the truth.
The hope would be that, as a society and as a Church, in learning from Philomena’s story, we might be less inclined to sit in judgement on others and less inclined to believe that whatever formulas we use to sort out those who don’t measure up to our standards are the only solutions there are.
Every generation will place the judgements of the previous one under a microscope. It’s both inevitable and necessary.