Judi Dench's latest film "Philomena" is scoring rave reviews left and right. But it is also drawing backlash from some Catholic leaders, with Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights calling the film "pure propaganda."
"A half-century ago, an Irish woman gave birth to a son out-of-wedlock, and gave him up for adoption; he was born in an abbey, a venue that allowed the mother to avoid being stigmatized," Donohue said in a statement. "There is nothing particularly startling about this, other than the fact that film reviewers are now all aghast about the 'horrors' these fallen women experienced; many are making reference to the Magdalene Laundries."
Donohue also referenced a lengthy piece he wrote attacking the claims made by other films inspired by the Catholic institutions known as Magdalene Laundries, as well as a New York Post review that calls "Philomena" a "hateful and boring attack on Catholics."
"Philomena" is based on the true-life story of Philomena Lee (played by Dench), who was sent to a nunnery as a young woman for getting pregnant out of wedlock, where her son was put up for adoption and sent to America. Many years later Lee was put in touch with former journalist Martin Sixsmith, and together they went on a journey to find her son, which Sixsmith wrote about for The Guardian and later in a book.
The film does not call the convent that Lee lived in a 'Magdalene Laundry' by name, but has young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) toiling away in a literal convent laundry. The Catholic institutions known as "Magdalene Laundries" took in not only unwed mothers like Philomena, but women put out on the street for a variety of other reasons – from being prostitutes to suffering mental illness to being victims of abusive families. There they were required to work a number of years, sometimes until their families were willing to take them back or they found another way of getting on their feet, and often labored in dire conditions.
Such institutions were in operation throughout the 20th century until as late as 1996. But activists have only recently brought the plight of women at the Magdalene Laundries to the forefront, pressing not just the Church but also the Irish government for not intervening. In February Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny offered a full-throated apology on the behalf of the government for what the women suffered in the laundries. The Irish government also published an 1,000 page report detailing the labor and emotional abuse victims suffered at these institutions (physical and sexual abuse also happened, but was very rare, the report found), as well as the government's involvement in them.
The nuns from the convent featured "Philomena" also took issue with the film, however their complaints were directed at how their convent's specific actions were portrayed. Speaking to the Catholic magazine The Tablet (via The Independent), a nun from the convent named Sister Julie said the nunnery never destroyed the adoption records or made money on the adoptions it set up for the children of women like Lee, as was suggested by the film. She added that one of the film's characters Sister Hildegarde McNulty – who "Philomena" depicts as treating Philomena particularly scornfully – was actually very concerned with reuniting mothers like Lee with their children. According to Sister Julie, the filmmakers had informed the convent that they would be including and taking artistic license with Sister Hildegarde's character, even though McNulty died in 1995.
When speaking to U.S. News earlier this month, "Philomena" star, co-producer and co-writer Steve Coogan admitted to taking liberties with the characters and chronology of the events in Lee's life. However he said that he didn't intend to make a film "overly angry" at the Church. It's worth noting [mild spoilers ahead] that while Coogan's character Martin – a lapsed Catholic (unlike the real Sixsmith, who is not Catholic) – becomes increasingly angry at the Church when uncovering Philomena's story, Philomena remains steadfast in her own Catholic faith. She ultimately takes the moral high ground, forgiving the nuns that separated her from her son, but also vowing to share her story with others.