New Film “Philomena” Digs into Class and Religion With the Help of Judi Dench

The poster for Philomena, which has Judi Dench and Steve Coogan sitting on a park bench

In new film Philomena, Dame Judi Dench stars as the titular Philomena Lee, an Irish woman searching for her long-lost son. The performances of Dench and co-star Steve Coogan carry the film, which is an enjoyable personal tale as well as a moving commentary on the destructive impacts of British class structure and the Catholic Church. 

Philomena’s plot is compelling: When Philomena became pregnant in her youth, her parents made her a ward of the Catholic Church. She gave birth to a son who the church then sold to rich American parents without her consent. On what would have been her son’s 50th birthday, Philomena decides to try and find him, drawing in politician-turned-grouchy-journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) as a begrudging ally on her quest.

While Philomena is based on a true story, the film has a sticky glaze of artificiality.  As the unlikely allies search for Philomena’s lost son, clues crop up in a timely manner like an episode of “House.” But the performances of Dench and Coogan are fun to watch as their characters play off their differences and learn to get along.

Judi Dench in Philomena

Many of their differences stem from the social biases of Britain’s class system. The more upper crust Martin Sixsmith tends to look down on Philomena for her common taste in frivolous romance novels and Big Momma’s House and for her deep-rooted faith. Meanwhile, Sixsmith seems detached from humanity—it’s revealed that he lost his political standing after saying that 9/11 was a “a good day to bury bad news.” He initially feels above the weepy human-interest story he’s been forced to cover about Philomena and her son.

Indeed, the situation young Philomena found herself in was due to class disparities. Had she become an unwed mother in high society, her parents might have sent her off to live with relatives until the baby was born. No such luxury existed for the lower rungs of the social ladder. Philomena recounts how her father left in the care of the nuns, where she was put to work for “her sins.”  While some Catholic abbeys did great things for the social welfare of their communities, the one Philomena lived at took advantage of its powerful position. In return for room, board, and baby care, the young girls’ children were sold off. The nuns’ justification was the sin of the mother’s warranted the punishment.

This is not so unlike the religious rhetoric from Republican and Tea Party lawmakers in the United States today who see no benefit in helping poor or unwed mothers because of their “sins.” That sin maybe class, race, or education but the damnation is the same. By increasing the limits on sex education, contraception, and abortion, they are abusing their position of power to ensure women suffer for their sins.  

At the end of the film, I couldn’t tell if it was a condemnation of religion as a whole (it certainly is critical of the Irish Catholic church) or more of a dialog in the way it affects people’s lives.  With faith comes forgiveness, at least for some. In a convent full of nuns, Philomena stands out in one scene for eventually forgiving the nuns for taking her child away without her consent. Faith enabled this unregulated systemic abuse, but it also allows the wounded to move on. 

It’s a question older than the Crusades: religion is used to justify violence and inequality, but it also gives strength to people like Philomena to deal with unbearable hardship. The movie is a bit of a puzzle coming from atheist co-writer Steve Coogan and the script grapples with these big questions of religion, class, and justice in a way that’s far beyond the typical teary human-interest story.

Read Bitch reviews of Blue is the Warmest Color and Catching Fire.

by Monica Castillo
View profile »

Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic. You can usually find her on Twitter talking about the movie she just watched at @mcastimovies.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

3 Comments Have Been Posted

Just a quick note on social

Just a quick note on social and historical context in Ireland during the 1950's. This is totally not a criticism of your article, by the way, I just want to provide you with a bit of supplementary info on the state of our country at the time. I'm going to cite Professor Diarmuid Ferriter of University College Dublin on this because it's his class that I took here which led me to these conclusions...

Ireland has never had a distinctive class system the way other countries had. In the 1950's you could roughly divide us up into a huge rural peasant class, a growing urban working class and then a moderately sized middle class and the clergy, all Catholic, plus a waning Protestant ascendancy and middle class. In those days even our politicians were middle class. And a far worse off middle class than middle class as we know it today. Even in Ireland today there are arguably more than three classes.

Even girls from more well-off families were sent to Magdalene Laundries. These were places where women were interned and used as slave labour. It was because at the time, Ireland was pretty much a theocracy. Our government consulted with the bishops on every matter and the general public lived in absolute fear and reverence of the Church. In most communities, the Church was exploitative. The government used them as social welfare - they provided the schools (I'm only twenty years old and was educated in a school run by the clergy) and the hospitals and certain prison-like institutions and in these, many children suffered horrible physical and sexual abuse. There are very few communities across this country that did not at one point have a pedophile priest.

Now, I know that my own biological grandmother avoided going to a Laundry because my biological great-grandmother (one of my parents is adopted) fought tooth and nail to allow my Nana Number Three to stay out of one. My Nana Number Three's background is staunchly working class and has remained so even through the economic boom that we had ten years ago.

It was less to do with class and more to do with familial support. While you're absolutely dead right that a girl could be hidden away by her family, it had nothing to do with the family's resources and all to do with how afraid they were. Of course the more upper-class people wouldn't have had much to do with this - they were probably Protestant.

Now, this said, the narrative of class between Philomena and Martin is really interesting because typically Irish immigrants into Britain of Philomena's generation would have suffered discrimination there and been seen as inherently trashier no matter how much money they ever made. A bit daft. A bit fanciful. Sort of lazy. I won't call it racism because ourselves and the Britons are as close as you get in terms of race, but there was discrimination.

That, I will stress, is not even remotely the case anymore, mind you. We're as welcome as ever in England.

The comparisons between the Tea Party are so interesting. Abortion is still illegal here in Ireland. Condoms became fully legal here in 1993. The year I was born. Divorce in 1995. I look at the Tea Party in the US and I cringe, because it does seem like they want a society as repressed as this one here was for so long, and to a degree, still is.

It's great to see that the film has made it across the water, though I agree that it's a bit slushy in spots. It's also a little bit ambiguous about the Magdalene Laundries, because I reckon it was made for an audience who knows more about them (there have been several British documentaries on the subject and one great film). If you want more info there's a great book by my History professor, Diarmuid Ferriter called 'Occasions of Sin', and you can also find more on this website:

Thanks for allowing my little rant and greetings all the way from Ireland!

As an addendum to that - the

As an addendum to that - the article doesn't make very clear the differences between Britain and Ireland at the time, which were huge, socially. Monumental, in fact. Our 'very Catholic' outlook was partially to differentiate ourselves from Godless Britain in the first place. Also, sorry for posting the comment twice!

Thank you for posting this. I

Thank you for posting this. I have an unexplored interest in the Magdalena laundries, and, in Irish catholic history. My great grandmother and father were born in Ireland, and their only daughter(not very catholic!) in Australia where I live. I'm 24. I've just begun to have conversations with my grandmother with the kind of depth I've always longed for. We don't live close but I've been able to see her three times this year and each time I've learnt a little more of her story, a little more of her. One thing I wonder is where all the 'Irish-ness' went. And what do I actually mean by that? My mother grew up catholic but she was disillusioned enough with the church by the time I was born to only 'make me' go to church when we were with my grandmother and encouraged me to believe what ever the hell I wanted to. She never took communion and it felt like such a quiet form of rebellion I'm only realising as I write this what a powerful act it was. But the church, that was the only thing left of our Irish heritage, that and a photo of a bar in Ireland that shares the same name as my grandmother. I have an Irish surname, my mothers maiden name, so her father must have had Irish heritage too. (Thought the distinctive 'o' at the front was long removed)
My father was adopted into a catholic family because his mother was 'young'. That's all the story I know but she may well have been in a Magdalene laundry, we have quite a few in Australia. A wonderful circle of women gathered at the site of one in Melbourne, at Abbotsford convent and held a beautiful blessing - femina unbound, return of the medicine women. Releasing past life bindings, healing hiraeth and singing home the spirits of the Magdalene Laundries.
So, my thread in all of this, this strange ramble, is that I'm really grateful for what you wrote, the easily digestible way it reads and your passion for this story.

Add new comment