Steve Coogan and Judi Dench were drawn to “Philomena” by faith.
The British comic and Oscar-winning actress co-star in the film opening Friday, which explores the benefits and costs of faith through the true story of Philomena Lee.
Lee was an unwed, pregnant teenager in 1952 when her Irish Catholic family sent her to a convent in shame. She worked seven days a week for her keep but allowed only an hour a day with her son, Anthony. After three years, the boy was sold for adoption in the United States, and Lee spent the next five decades looking for him.
Despite repeated, insistent visits to the convent, the nuns would tell her nothing. She’d signed away her rights to her son, they said, due punishment for her sinful behavior.
“We were indoctrinated and you believed everything the church told you. If they said black was white, you believed it,” Lee, now 80, said in a recent interview. “I firmly believed, once they’d discovered I was having Anthony, that I had committed a mortal sin, the most awful thing ever done.”
Anthony’s whereabouts remained a mystery until a chance meeting with BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith, who applied journalistic pressure — and sleuthing skills — to Lee’s circumstances. By so doing, Sixsmith also illuminated the plight of many other women of that generation who never knew what happened to the children they bore in those convents.
Coogan came across the story in the British newspaper The Guardian and was instantly moved.
“I started reading it out loud to my girlfriend and broke down crying half way through because it was so overwhelming,” the 48-year-old actor said. “It made me angry and I wanted to tell people about it.”
He optioned Sixsmith’s 2009 book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” without even reading it, determined to bring the story to the screen. Raised in a Catholic household by loving parents who fostered abused children, Coogan was compelled to explore where faith and religion go too far.