Philomena, the new film about the search by a retired Irish nurse for the son who had been taken from her 50 years before, when she was a young unwed mother virtually incarcerated in an Irish nunnery, is getting rave reviews. It has been nominated for three Golden Globe awards, for Best Actress (Judy Dench), Best Screenplay (written by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, who also plays the British journalist on assignment to help the older woman in her quest) and Best Film. That’s thrilling news to executive producer Carolyn Marks Blackwood, especially given that its subject matter, which is based on a true story, was somewhat risky from a commercial standpoint. “I don’t think a Hollywood studio would go for a film about an old lady looking for her child,” she said. “It’s not a good pitch.”
Films get produced in all sorts of ways, a process than can take many years; but in this case, the pieces fell rapidly into place. Coogan approached Gaby Tana with the script and asked if the film production company that she and Blackwood own, Magnolia Mae Films, would produce the movie. “It was the best first draft of any script I ever read,” recalled Blackwood (below), who resides on a farm near Clinton with her partner Gregory Quinn. “I was on a plane with my fiancé going to Europe, and every time he looked at me I was either laughing or crying. We immediately got the funding.” Coogan subsequently read the script to Judy Dench, who was instantly on board, followed by the director, Stephen Frears, “who has a longstanding and close relationship with Dench,” said Blackwood.
Though the screenwriters took poetic license and telescoped different times and scenes together for the sake of a compelling narrative, “the essential story is very true,” she said. To cite one example, in real life Sister Hildegarde had died by the time journalist Martin Sixsmith was investigating the case. However, the nun had met with both Philomena and her grown son and stonewalled them both by saying that she had no information. Worse, she told Philomena’s son that his mother had no interest in him and had given him up voluntarily.
The film isn’t just making waves in critical circles; its exposure of the shameful and cruel practice in the 1950s of Irish nunneries selling off out-of-wedlock babies against their mothers’ will has also “set off an enormous movement in Ireland, of people trying to find each other,” Blackwood said. “I sat with Philomena [Lee] a few weeks ago, and she said she was so happy she did this. She was walking around ashamed for 50 years, and now she’s helping other women unburden themselves of the shame they have been forced to carry.”
Blackwood, who was born in Alaska, grew up on Long Island, attended Rutgers and New York University and worked as a singer/songwriter in the 1970s before developing TV programs in Paris starting in the late 1980s, said that Philomena is the fourth film produced by Magnolia Mae. The first was The Duchess, which is set in England in the late 18th century and is about Georgiana Cavendish, Dutchess of Devonshire, who was forced to tolerate living with her husband’s mistress in the same house. The Invisible Woman, which was released for a limited run on Christmas Day and will get a wider release in the coming weeks, takes the opposite tack, focusing on the restraints suffered by the mistress of Charles Dickens, who is played by Felicity Jones, with Ralph Fiennes as Dickens (Fiennes also directs).