Pass the popcorn! This movie preview gets faith theme right

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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.

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About Tamie Ross

Tamie Ross is a wife, mom, writer and all-around crazy-about-life girl now battling autoimmune disease. Her 20-year journalism career included stints as religion editor for The Oklahoman, online editor for The Christian Chronicle and freelancer for clients ranging from The Associated Press to United Methodist News Service. She has won state and national awards for her personal columns and editorials.

  • Motherwell

    Steve Coogan says that in his family there were “notions of sex as being wicked and not talked about….”

    I’ve heard celebrities say this and I’ve always wished that the journalist would ask a followup question or two to find out exactly how the parents dealt with sexual questions from the interviewee, how the interviewee learned about sex if the parents were silent, and what the interviewee has learned about sex from the larger culture.

    I was born in the midst of the Sexual Revolution in the US in a conservative Christian family, and I can tell you that sex WAS talked about and WAS NOT considered wicked. We were taught that sex was a beautiful gift from God that needed to be enjoyed obediently and within the limitations God had provided.

    Was my family an anomoly within conservative Christianity of the 1960′s, 70′s, and 80′s?
    I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m reminded of what C.S. Lewis said in Mere Chritianity: “They tell you sex has become a mess because it was hushed up. But for the last twenty years it has not been hushed up. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still in a mess. If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right. But it has not.”

    • AuthenticBioethics

      Yes, and Lewis published that in 1944.

  • FW Ken

    Given the controversy surrounding The Magdalen Laundies, you would think a journalist would have done a little research to verify this woman’s story. Maybe talked to other residents of that institution? Checked records? Don’t journalists do that? Ok, it’s a movie review. But isn’t there a story in it?

  • Nils

    The thing I always wonder about these stories is why they never really go into the actual faith-lives of the actors. It’s known that Dench is a Quaker, but you’d think we could learn more about them and their motivations in acting if the journalists delved a bit more deeply. So we don’t have a complete ghost of religion, but it’s not really apparent if they are practicing in their faith or if they’re just intrigued by the notion. Perhaps a personal nitpick, but this always seems to happen in religion stories involving celebrities.

  • Bill J

    Curious. Dench doesn’t see film as being degrading to the Catholic Church and this column repeats that assertion. Meanwhile Kyle Smith, a film critic in the NY Post said: “…this is a diabolical-Catholics film, straight up….A film that is half as harsh on Judaism or Islam, of course, wouldn’t be made in the first place, and would be universally reviled if it were. ‘Philomena’ is a sucker punch, or maybe a sugary slice of arsenic cake.” (11/21/13)