Movie junkets, and the stories that result from them, share a certain predictability — and it doesn’t usually involve any depth of discussion about faith issues.
During my stint as assistant features editor at The Oklahoman in the late 1990s, I went on a few of them. In those days, the studio flew reporters to Los Angeles, put them up in nice hotels near the Santa Monica Pier and herded them through group, round-robin interviews with the movie’s stars.
The individuals on both sides of the table were pretty blasé about the whole ordeal. Questions trended toward the obvious, and answers were usually predictable and clipped, sound bite style. I’m pretty sure Martin Short showed up to one I did on Disney’s dime with a happy hour vibe going on at 9 a.m.
You get the point: The studios and stars are selling, and the moviegoing public generally doesn’t buy into faith, generally speaking.
So I was surprised to read a thoughtful, well-written preview from The Associated Press on “Philomena” that made it clear from the beginning that this film, its screenwriter and stars were embracing the religious tenor from opening scene to closing credits. Further, actor Steve Coogan shared his own faith background, and he, co-star Judi Dench and subject Philomena Lee expounded on some of the more disquieting church doctrine of the era that led to a mother separated from her son:
Steve Coogan and Judi Dench were drawn to “Philomena” by faith.
The British comic and Oscar-winning actress co-star in the film opening Friday, which explores the benefits and costs of faith through the true story of Philomena Lee.
Lee was an unwed, pregnant teenager in 1952 when her Irish Catholic family sent her to a convent in shame. She worked seven days a week for her keep but allowed only an hour a day with her son, Anthony. After three years, the boy was sold for adoption in the United States, and Lee spent the next five decades looking for him.
Despite repeated, insistent visits to the convent, the nuns would tell her nothing. She’d signed away her rights to her son, they said, due punishment for her sinful behavior.
“We were indoctrinated and you believed everything the church told you. If they said black was white, you believed it,” Lee, now 80, said in a recent interview. “I firmly believed, once they’d discovered I was having Anthony, that I had committed a mortal sin, the most awful thing ever done.”
The film focuses on Lee’s quest, with the help of BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, to find Anthony. Sixsmith chronicled her story in the 2009 investigative book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”
Coogan came across about the story in the British press and said he began crying halfway through reading it to his girlfriend. He co-wrote the screenplay and starred as Sixsmith. Dench plays Philomena Lee:
Raised in a Catholic household by loving parents who fostered abused children, Coogan was compelled to explore where faith and religion go too far.
“My issues were a lot to do with notions of sex as being wicked and not talked about… and there’s something that’s not healthy, that’s destructive about that,” he said. “However, there’s also a philanthropy and a generosity of spirit within the church that I have witnessed. So there’s a dichotomy there.
Lee confessed that although she retained her belief in God and continues to pray, she did not raise her children in the Catholic church and no longer practices its tenets.
Dench said that the hours she spent getting to know Lee revealed the woman’s unwavering faith, and that because of Lee’s demeanor, character and the quest to find her son, the focus of the film isn’t on degrading the church, but on telling a story of inner fortitude.
It’s that faith that drew Dench to the role. The 78-year-old actress spent hours with Lee, learning about her story and being touched by her genuine warmth.
“I was fascinated by her and wanted to do it straightaway,” Dench said by phone from London. “Ultimately, I think it’s a story about faith. I don’t think it gets polemic about the church in any way. It tells that bit of story, but in natural fact, much more so than that, it’s about a woman who has an unshakable faith after going through that experience.”
The word faith is used in this story 11 times, including the headline. Yet it’s never forced, and the result is a solid, journalistic piece on telling the story of a film that really has a story.
A story of faith.