Fallen woman rising in Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

Until very recently, most of us didn’t know about the so-called Magdalene laundries: grim places run by the Catholic Church where “fallen women” were sent to endure a life of servitude, silence and abuse, sometimes for the rest of their days.

The first Magdalene institution was founded in Whitechapel, England in 1758, and the concept spread quickly to other countries – even Australia and the US – but it especially caught fire in Ireland. These “asylums” were originally intended to get prostitutes out of the trade and teach them other skills to make their living. But before long they became a lucrative source of slave labor, provided by women who had become pregnant out of wedlock, sought refuge from domestic violence, were developmentally disabled or mentally ill or were just deemed too attractive or flirtatious for their own good.

Hundreds of these workhouses were in existence by the end of the 19th century, and an estimated 30,000 “Maggies” were incarcerated in the laundries in Ireland alone. Although their existence started to become a public scandal in 1993, after a developer bulldozed up hundreds of unmarked graves on the grounds of a former Church-owned workhouse, the last one didn’t close until 1996. Living conditions were often appalling, according to survivors, and physical, sexual and emotional abuse widespread. The United Nations Committee against Torture took up their cause in 2011, but recalcitrance on the part of several religious orders and the fact that many records were deliberately burned long ago impeded efforts to document the abuses. Nonetheless, enough evidence and personal testimony were uncovered to persuade the Irish government to issue an official state apology last February to the survivors.

Saying “sorry” long years after the fact doesn’t do much for the women who endured this medievally punitive system. One of these was Philomena Lee, a naïve young Irishwoman whose tale is told in Philomena, the latest film from the great English director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Queen).

When she became pregnant in 1952, Lee was sent to a “Mother and Baby Home” called Sean Ross Abbey at Roscrea. She spent four years there, enduring an unmedicated breech birth for the sake of “penance,” working seven days a week in the hellish laundry and only being allowed to spend one hour a day with her son Anthony. That was enough time, however, to form a deep bond that was shattered when the nuns essentially sold her toddler to the highest bidder: a well-off Catholic family from America. The abbey wasn’t just a workhouse; it was an adoption mill.

Lee was forced to sign papers giving up her child before he was even born; nevertheless, she went back to Roscrea several times over the years to try to find out Anthony’s whereabouts. The nuns pretended to know nothing. All records of the adoption had been destroyed in a fire, they claimed – although they had no trouble producing the document in which Lee had legally forsaken all rights to contact her son.

Lee went on to train as a nurse, marry and have two more children. But, effectively cowed and shamed by the nuns, she never told anyone about her youthful “transgression” – until the day that Anthony would have turned 50. Then she finally revealed his existence to her other children, and began a quest that eventually involved a high-profile British journalist, Martin Sixsmith.

At the outset of the film, Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who had long worked as a BBC foreign correspondent with special expertise in Russian history, has just become the victim of a British government putsch, ousted from a job as an advisor to the Blair administration for opposing the cover-up of an embarrassing e-mail by the Transport ministry. Out of work and wondering whether to return to journalism or write another book on Russia, he gets wind of Philomena Lee’s search for her son. Initially he resists the idea of doing a human-interest story, which he regards as slumming; but he needs the money, and a pushy magazine editor (Michelle Fairley) pressures him to take the gig. So he agrees to meet with Philomena (Judi Dench), and gets inexorably sucked into her quest.

For all the tragedy behind this narrative, much of the movie Philomena brims with humor, based on the striking mismatch between the two primary characters. It’s largely a story about class differences and how they can be transcended. Sixsmith is highly educated, self-consciously intellectual, jaded and cynical; at 70, Lee remains simple, direct and easy to please. She doesn’t get Martin’s sardonic jokes; her unsophisticated tastes and childlike enthusiasms make him cringe when they’re out in public together; he’s aghast at her readiness to excuse the behavior of the institution that kept her in servitude and took her son away.

Though he assumes at first that Philomena is unintelligent, she manages to take his self-importance down a peg on more than one occasion. And as they fly off to Washington, DC to track down the Irish boy who grew up to become a surprisingly influential force in American politics under a different name, Martin slowly grows to admire her tenacity, wisdom and generosity of spirit. He even learns to act a bit less prickly with cashiers and waitresses under her gentling influence.

Thanks to a witty script by Coogan and Jeff Pope, based on Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and to sensitive performances from the lead actors, the onscreen exchanges between these two allies from wildly different worlds are exquisitely timed, both poignant and wonderfully funny. The always-superb Dench walks an especially fine line, bringing dignity and warmth to a character who could easily have become a pitiable simpleton in less able hands. We get to enjoy their adventures together on multiple levels: as a resonant tragedy of institutional exploitation of vulnerable women and children, and as a comedy of manners that tweaks the British caste system in all its preciousness.

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