In an unusual twist of events, Philomena Lee, the real life subject of the recently released Judi Dench awards contender Philomena, has spoken out against of one of the film’s harshest critics. The film, directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen) came out in limited release last Friday has received largely favorable reviews since premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival in September (where it won the Screenplay prize) and opened to robust early box office numbers, but hasn’t appealed everyone, namely Kyle Smith who panned the film in his harsh New York Post review.
Smith opened his one star review of the film, vehemently stating, “With Philomena, 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.” Philomena tells the true life story of Philomena Lee (Dench) who after a fifty-year absence and with the aid of a disgraced journalist (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the script) connects with the son she was forced to give up for adoption. Lee, who is Irish, was sent to a Catholic abbey after becoming pregnant as a teenager. As was a custom of the time, she had to give up her child as out-of-wedlock pregnancies were shunned.
Smith asserts, “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.” Adding to Smith’s ire is the development that Philomena’s son, who was adopted by a family in America, affirms himself as a Republican. The New York Post is owned by News Corp.
Lee elected to personally admonish the claims and merits of Smith’s review (the full text of which can be found here) in a public letter, a rare case of real life subject of a film holding court with a movie reviewer critical of the film about her life:
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 England, 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’s 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.