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Philomena follows an elderly woman, played by Judi Dench, who searches for her adult child decades after a branch of the Catholic Church took him away against her will — but director Stephen Frears insists there was no conscious effort to turn it into an attack on the church.
Speaking at a Thursday town hall at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, Frears said, “The boys who wrote it, Steve [Coogan] and Jeff [Pope], didn’t want to make a movie attacking the Catholic Church because, quite frankly, it isn’t very difficult.’
Coogan, besides being co-writer and a producer stars in the movie with Dench.
Frears added he never consulted with anyone in the Catholic Church about the movie before or during production.
A New York Post critic has called the movie “another hateful attack on Catholics,” prompting the Weinstein Company, which is handling the domestic release, to run an ad in the New York Times to counter that impression. Coogan has also said in interviews that his movie was never intended to take on the church.
Frears notes that instead of attacking the church, the film plays out as the very human story of the movie’s central character, Philomena. “She’s quite astonishing,” said Frears. “There is a woman who carries such a tragic story inside of her. She’s absolutely without bitterness. She’s very, very clear headed. She’s funny and dignified, and that in itself is a revelation. And she is devoted.”
“It’s really the separation of devotedness and the institution of the church,” added Frears.
When asked about his own faith in god, Frears — who was raised in England as an Anglican — said he had “no faith.”
He compared himself to one of the central characters in the film, Martin Sixsmith played by Coogan, who Frears referred to as a “lapsed Catholic.”
When asked about his views of the Catholic Church at the town hall by moderator Alex Cohen, host of Take Two on KPCC-FM in Los Angeles, Frears said he didn’t have much to say. He did praise Pope Francis. “It’s self-evident what a good man he has been. He had a dodgy past, but good for him.”
Philomena was launched in limited domestic release on Nov. 22 and has grossed a little over $11 million to date. It has a 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes reflecting strong favorable critical reaction for the movie. It received three Golden Globe nominations.
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