Faith and fierceness in Philomena

Steve Coogan and Sophie Kennedy Clark on the tonal complexities of their latest film.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

 Steve Coogan: 'You have to reach a climax, a crescendo'
Steve Coogan: 'You have to reach a climax, a crescendo' Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
The first snowflakes fell in Manhattan this season as we were chatting with Steve Coogan about Jane Russell, Jesus and other sons in his film Philomena at the Crosby Street Hotel. "One of the touchstones was the film Missing [directed by Costa-Gavras in 1982] with Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon - they go on a journey looking for a missing son," he said and explained the complex tone of the movie he co-wrote, produced and stars in.

Directed by Stephen Frears and based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, the movie Philomena chronicles the journey Sixsmith (Coogan) and Philomena (played by Judi Dench and Sophie Kennedy Clark in the flashbacks) took together to find her son who had been adopted by an American couple as a toddler.

Sophie Kennedy Clark also joined the conversation to speak about Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters (2002) and the symbolism of overgrown graves.

Steve Coogan with Judi Dench in Philomena. Coogan: 'I wanted it to be both funny and offensive'
Steve Coogan with Judi Dench in Philomena. Coogan: 'I wanted it to be both funny and offensive'
A child out of wedlock by a teenage mother in Catholic Ireland of the Fifties, the machinery and dirty laundry of a convent, and how two people from very different social backgrounds can do detective work together form the core of this funny serious inquiry into accusation and forgiveness.

Anne-Katrin Titze: There's the line in the film: "If Jesus were here, he'd trip you out of your wheelchair." It sums up the tone you catch with this film - the delicate balance of humour and being very serious.

Steve Coogan: That's an important moment. I wanted to make the distinction that those people who say they are acting in the name of religion and they are acting on behalf of God are not acting the way that if God exists, if indeed he exists, I don't think he would approve of this. That's an important distinction to make. Also, I am mindful of the fact that Jesus Christ threw the money lenders out of the temple. To use that idea of Jesus, that he actually would be angry. To make the distinction between criticising religious hierarchy and the institution of religion.

When she invokes Jesus Christ as being someone who should judge and not the likes of Martin [Sixsmith, the journalist who investigated the sale of Philomena's baby] he kind of quite rightly points out that Jesus would be angry. Of course, it's a funny line but it's also an offensive line. I wanted it to be both funny and offensive. It's interesting, when that line is said out loud in a cinema, you can hear an intake of breath by some people, because it's quite shocking to say to an old lady in a wheelchair [Sister Hildegarde played by Barbara Jefford]. I wanted it to be shocking and that's why we put her in a wheelchair. There's a part of it which should seem almost aggressive in a way that's not entirely comfortable and the rest - some people just laugh. I don't mind the paradox of this response, because it's nervous and it's anger. It's all those things mixed up into one and it's Philomena who stops it there. She says this is not your choice to make how we deal with what happened to me. That was important. You have to reach a climax, a crescendo, that's why I used profanity and such violent imagery, because Philomena has to stop it to come with a different approach.

AKT: Did Jane Russell actually buy an Irish baby in 1952?

Steve Coogan on Sister Hildegarde: 'I wanted it to be shocking and that's why we put her in a wheelchair'
Steve Coogan on Sister Hildegarde: 'I wanted it to be shocking and that's why we put her in a wheelchair' Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
SC: Yes she did. It was reported in the newspapers as well. It wasn't a secret.

AKT: Is that baby still alive? Did you do any research about that?

SC: I don't know. I think she adopted two children. I think one of them might be dead. I don't know what became of them.

Sophie Kennedy Clark plays the young Philomena.

AKT: How familiar were you with the historical facts before going into this project?

Sophie Kennedy Clark: Well, I'd seen The Magdalene Sisters. Obviously, that really struck a chord. It was based on a true story. The difference when I read the Philomena script was that this is a true story and this woman is still alive. [Sophie in preparation had the chance to visit the real Philomena in her home] There are people, who within their lifetime this thing happened to. I think it's very difficult to accustom our mind to that.

AKT: What surprised you in the script or had the strongest effect on you?

SKC: Ultimately, there were a couple of points that really disturbed me. The girls were being worked to the bone in the laundries for no money - which, by all means, is the definition of slavery. And this is the kind of slavery that has never really been a focal point and always seems to have slipped under the radar. That in itself was really shocking to me.

Sophie Kennedy Clark: The Magdalene Sisters 'really struck a chord'
Sophie Kennedy Clark: The Magdalene Sisters 'really struck a chord' Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Secondly, the layout of the film. The structure of the film is unlike any other I've ever seen. You find out that her son is dead halfway through it and usually that's the end of the film. This happens halfway through it and different bits of information are fed to you. I think the fact that Philomena was so open-minded about him being gay was a point where I went "Really? That was her reaction?" You think she'd be be more like the nuns who brought her up that would be so anti-everything. But it showed me, that you can be any religion and be like a really well to do person with great values.

AKT: It throws you back on your own prejudices.

SKC: That was a real point in the film. You're not demonising religion here. There are a lot of very good people in this world that have faith.

AKT: Was the cemetery with the mothers and the babies real, the actual place where they buried them? Do you know?

SKC: You know what? I'm not sure because we filmed outside London. I wasn't there on location in Roscrea [the convent in Ireland]. That was something I find deeply upsetting - the grave of the 14-year-old girl. Actually Steve [Coogan] said something very interesting. When he went to Roscrea to do location research, the nun's graves were immaculately preserved and the graves of the girls, they were covered in weeds and you can barely see them. That is a metaphor really for how this part of history is just being covered up and overgrown.

Philomena opens in the US on November 22. It is out now in cinemas across the UK.

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