ARTS AND FEATURES — 30 October 2013

By Shelley Marsden

FOR Steve Coogan, his powerful new film Philomena, which is already being tipped for an Oscar, is less an angry attack on Catholicism and more about the healing power of saying ‘sorry’.

Directed by Stephen Frears, Philomena is based on the true story of world-weary political journalist Martin Sixsmith, who decided to tell the story of an Irish woman’s search for her son, taken away from her decades ago after she fell pregnant and was forced to live in a convent, one of the infamous ‘Magdalene Laundries’.

Coogan told the Irish World he believes the Oscar-tipped film, which he co-wrote and stars in alongside Judi Dench is about, amongst other things, being able to acknowledge one’s mistakes.

“It’s that defensive position the Church has taken which is deny, deny, deny until the evidence is undeniable and then begrudgingly accept its guilt”, says Coogan. “For an institution so in favour of contrition, when it came to putting its own house in order it had to be brought kicking and screaming to the confessional box. You have to do what the character says in the film – ‘Say sorry’.”

He added: “You empower yourself by saying you’ve made mistakes. You learn from them and move on, and really mean it. We shouldn’t include in this, of course, those people like Philomena who lead dignified, philanthropic lives in the name of their religion.”

At the Abbey, which is the basis of the film, the Manchester-Irish actor, famous for his comedy alter-ego Alan Partridge, was struck by how the graves he saw were kept. That those of the nuns were beautifully tended to and those of the babies and mothers were overgrown with brambles was, he said, the perfect metaphor for the Church’s behaviour and its “bunker mentality” in defending itself against criticism.

Coogan plays brittly, world-weary journalist Martin Sixsmith

Coogan said: “If the Catholic Church has a future, it’s in people like Philomena. My parents fostered children growing up; children that had been abused, sometimes without anywhere to go. They didn’t wave a flag or blow a trumpet. They just quietly went about their lives, in the way their conscience dictated, in the name of their religion.  I admire them for that. They don’t go around judging others. I wanted the film to show these good people.

At the Venice Film Festival in September, Philomena won an award named after a Catholic Jesuit priest, and another from a secular society, an irony not lost on Coogan. “You see? You don’t have to agree with people to love them. You can be an atheist and love and respect people who have faith. You don’t need to win the argument – you can just co-exist.”

The 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, which examined the same terrible miscarriage of justice in Ireland, did something that needed to be done, but Coogan says rather than pointing the finger, his film is doing something different.

“What happened was wrong and there aren’t many people that are going to defend it – but I wanted Philomena to have a conversation that would include people. If you alienate people by being too judgemental, then they don’t take part in the discussion. You can’t have a conversation with somebody like that.

“You have to be inclusive and have a grown-up conversation. What I wanted to do was dignify people of simple faith. It’s about cynicism, actually. I’m more interested in the conversation between Martin and Philomena than what happened in the laundries, though that’s important.”

Coogan says he was “freaked out” to be working alongside Dench

For the full interview, see the Irish World newspaper (issue 2 Nov 2013).

Philomena is in cinemas from November 1.

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