When New York Post critic Kyle Smith blasted “Philomena” and said that British producer-writer-star Steve Coogan and director Stephen Frears “hit double blackjack, finding a true-life tale that would enable them to simultaneously attack Catholics and Republicans,” Harvey Weinstein found an opportunity to turn a negative review into a publicity ploy.
You’ve got to hand it to Harvey Weinstein. He’s always eager to take up a fight if it means promoting one of his films, especially during awards season.
“Philomena” is about an odd couple road trip that a humble elderly Irish woman (Dame Judi Dench) takes with an uptight former BBC journalist (Coogan) to find the son that mean nuns forced her, as an unwed mother, to give up some 50 years earlier.
In his review of the film, Smith described it as “90 minutes of hate.”
The real-life Philomena Lee wrote a letter to Smith (below) where she addresses his many criticisms of the film. The letter has been floating around on the blogosphere, but today the Weinstein Company ran the letter as a full page in the national edition of the New York Times.
At a BAFTA screening of the film in Manhattan last month, Philomena Lee said she struggled with her Catholic belief briefly during some dark days trying to find her son when nuns at the Irish abbey where she gave birth set up roadblocks to her search, but that she has retained a strong belief in the Catholic church since then.
At the junket for the film, Coogan said he asked Philomena if she forgave what the nuns did to her, and she replied, “Yes, I do.” A self-professed lapsed Catholic and atheist, Coogan said that he was far less conciliatory.
I asked Coogan whether the Catholic Church or the abbey where Philomena had given birth – and where she worked long hours in the laundry as unpaid labor – had made any comments about the film when it was released in England. He told me:
“The church has not been forthcoming in Ireland, where it happened. People within the church have been very contrite, but there are just as many people who are unwilling to accept the facts of the film. They refused to respond in any way. They didn’t want to help. We went and looked around the abbey, and I had a conversation with a nun while we were looking around the abbey and the word she used was ‘impertinent.’”
What do you think? Is “Philomena” anti-Catholic?
Here is Philomena Lee’s full letter to the Post:
Having just had a film – and not long before that, a book – made about my life has been a surreal experience, needless to say. I worked for nearly thirty years as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, a job that some days was emotionally grueling but in which I relished every moment of service. The rest of my time has been spent focusing on my family. All told, I’m a humble woman who has spent a quiet life in Ireland, probably as far as one can get from the chaotic lights and busy chatter of the Hollywood and media world.
It wouldn’t normally be in my nature to comment on a movie review like yours, not just because this is all something new and foreign to me. I consider myself a woman of devout views but also one of considerable open mindedness. However, I must tell you that your take on PHILOMENA has moved me to respond.
Your review of the movie paints its story as being a condemnation of Catholicism and conservative views. It states that the relationship depicted between Mr. Martin Sixsmith and myself comes across as contrived and trite, and funny for all the wrong reasons. Forgive me for saying so, Kyle, but you are incorrect.
What Stephen Frears did with Martin’s book is something extraordinary and quite real. Stephen’s take on the story of Martin and me searching for my long lost son, who I hadn’t spoken of to a single soul in fifty years, has overwhelmingly spoken to those who have seen it in a very positive light. For that I am intensely grateful, not just because people the world over have watched the movie with open hearts and embraced me for coming forward with the truth after all this time. The story it tells has resonated with people not because it’s some mockery of ideas or institutions that they’re in disagreement with. This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith.
Kyle, Stephen’s movie about my story is meant to be a testament to good things, not an attack. It is a testament to the undying bond that exists between mothers and their children, something that I’ve found time and distance have no bearing on. It is a testament to the willingness to never give up on keeping that bond alive, even if all odds are pointing you against it. It is also a testament to the fact that no matter how old we grow, there is always a chance we will meet someone, however different from us, that might impact our views on humanity and help guide us on a new, if perhaps unforeseen, path.
Once again, let me state that all in all, Stephen, Martin and I have been incredibly fortunate in receiving such a warm response to the movie. Not everyone has to love it, or take much away from it, but I speak on behalf of all of us in saying that what we don’t want is its message to be misinterpreted. You are entitled to an opinion of course, as we all are. Just as I forgave the church for what happened with my son, I forgive you for not taking the time to understand my story. I do hope though that the families heading to the movie theatre to see the film decide for themselves – and disagree with you.