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Few movies in theaters right now are being as universally hailed by critics (and heavily favored by Oscar oddsmakers) as British import Philomena. Certainly there’s a lot to like about this purportedly true story of an atheist journalist who helps an elderly Catholic woman track down the son she placed for adoption, including charming odd-couple humor, stunning Irish vistas, and crackling performances from leads Steve Coogan and the always-captivating Dame Judi Dench.
And yet, as former Labor Party adviser Martin (Coogan) and romance-novel-loving biddy Philomena (Dench) travel from country roads to slick Washington, D.C., hotels, their elite-mouse/bumpkin-mouse story begins to lose some of its authenticity. It’s hard to believe, for example, that a woman who has adhered to church teaching all her life feels no qualms disregarding Scripture’s proscriptions against homosexuality. Likewise, the movie offers no evidence of its assertion that a deceased character despised the Reagan administration for which he worked. But the film loses the most credibility when, near the end, it portrays the Catholic clergy as snarling, Machiavellian bullies.
This isn’t to suggest that the nuns at the convent where Philomena gave birth weren’t guilty of selling babies against the mothers’ wishes or destroying records of adoptions to cover their tracks—perhaps they were. (The nuns are publicly disputing the movie’s account.) But it seems a little too convenient that all Philomena’s villains—both implicit and explicit—consistently behave exactly as the most clichéd liberal stereotype would imagine. Though Philomena defends her beliefs against Martin’s obscenity-laced anti-Christian tirades (language, including some spicy sex-themed dialogue accounts for the PG-13 rating), the resulting implication is that Philomena herself is a force for good, not that Christianity is.
If the abbey forsook their obligation to offer love, support, and forgiveness to lost, unmarried pregnant women as egregiously as the film suggests, why then has the real Philomena maintained her faith in Christ and the Catholic Church? There are compelling possible answers to that question. But the movie has no time for them after spending so many minutes making everyone else associated with the church look so unappealing.