In the “now I’ve seen everything” category, let’s welcome self-described atheist film critic Kyle Smith of the New York Post, now excoriated for defending the Roman Catholic Church, specifically its Irish branch, against “Philomena,” an apparently smarmy new film that applies 21st century scruples to 1952 Ireland.
More than a sentence or two of background is necessary before the media criticism. And, yes, I know that GetReligion rarely if ever digs into the contents of reviews. Trust me, this one is worth it.
The “biopic,” as Hollywood’s press likes to call these things, stars Dame Judi Dench, portraying Philomena Lee, a now-senior citizen from Ireland who, some 60 odd years ago, was pregnant “out of wedlock” as the old saying goes. In Ireland, in the 1950s, being “in a family way” without being married was an express pass to ostracism for both mother and child. Think Hester Prynne on steroids.
Lee finds shelter at the Sean Ross Abbey, run by the Sacred Heart Sisters. As the story goes, Lee signs away the rights to her child, who is plucked from her at age three and packed off to America, long after firm mother-and-child bonds are formed.
Decades later, Lee enlists the help of a real journalist, Martin Sixsmith, apparently down on his professional luck. Together, they trace what happened to the baby she gave up, only to find the son, now named Michael Hess, passed away a few years earlier, a closeted gay man who rose high in Republican U.S. administrations, becoming chief legal counsel to President George H.W. Bush, before tragically dying of AIDS. Ironically, Hess donated money to the Sean Ross Abbey so he could be buried there, in case his estranged birth mother ever sought him.
Smith’s original review doesn’t divulge his own faith background (raised Catholic, he ditched the Church for atheism), but the critic comes out swinging:
The film doesn’t mention that in 1952 Ireland, both mother and child’s life would have been utterly ruined by an out-of-wedlock birth and that the nuns are actually giving both a chance at a fresh start that both indeed, in real life, enjoyed. No, this is a diabolical-Catholics film, straight up.
Such criticism apparently didn’t sit well with Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, whose firm is the U.S. distributor for the film. Here’s Smith’s take: