Philomena and the art of cinematic propaganda

Responses to the film Philomena have been as predictable as they have been divided. In one corner filmgoers who think it is a brilliant film, also in this corner are those who applaud it for its attack on the practices of the Irish Catholic Church. In the other corner, other defenders of the Catholic Church and the Republican Party, fighting with both hands tied behind their backs, but fighting nonetheless.

The film is also extremely interesting for another reason and that is the way that the medium of the film, as distinct from the content, is used to support the political message. It’s subtle, but it’s extremely effective.

The message of the film, that the Irish Catholic Church had abused and exploited young foldable women, is reinforced by the fact that the main character is akin to a saint, not only for her steadfast faith but also for her forgiveness of the nuns who have perpetrated such enormous sins against her. How could we not sympathise with such a character? It is by enlisting the audience’s sympathy for the character, that the credibility of his story is enhanced. There’s nothing wrong with this but it is a cinematic trick. It has been used in the past to very great effect by the Dirty Harry and Rambo franchises. This linking of the character with the political message of the film is used to reinforce existing prejudices of the audience. In the case of Philomena, the outrage felt at the multitudinous abuses of children by the Catholic Church.

But most people, I feel that sense of outrage. But it is worth considering how this film manipulates that sense of outrage and how such a technique can be used to reinforce other prejudices.

Philomena’s son, Anthony/Michael, is used in much the same way. He is successful, good-looking and personable. He is also gay and has died of AIDS, big sympathy tick here. He has also died before Philomena can meet him, more sympathy for Philomena from the audience. He has kept alive his memory of his early childhood in Ireland and of his mother. What’s not to like about this bloke? But in the end, the devils of the Catholic Church haunt him to his grave. The sense of outrage in the cinema is almost palpable.

On the other side of the ledger, are nuns of the Roscrea Magdalene asylum for fallen women and the repulsive Sister Hildegard McNulty who regards Philomena’s pains in childbirth as just punishment for her carnal sins. Not only this, these women sell babies. There is no sympathy in the film for the nuns. And why should there be, they showed no sympathy for the children they were exploiting in the laundries. But this is an easy and facile judgement, and one which the film encourages us to make.

What is dangerous about this film is that it plays to and reinforces our prejudices, mine included. We of the liberal left want to feel outrage at the abuses of the Catholic Church and this film helps us do it, and in spades.

I think this is a great film and that Judi Dench deserves an Oscar for her role as Philomena. But we should not be blind to the cynical exploitation of the situation both of the film and the surrounding publicity.

When New York Post critic Kyle Smith blasted Philomena for its  “simultaneously attack Catholics and Republicans”, the real-life Philomena Lee wrote a letter to Smith, putting her side of the picture. All fair and above board. But then the Weinstein Company, which produced the film, ran the letter as a full page in the national edition of the New York Times.

To be fair, this is what you do to get Oscars. But we should not be deceived by the fact that this is a continuation of the same strategy on which the film is based:  a story for which there is massive sympathy, characters the audience has immense sympathy for and  bad guys who are irredeemably evil.

As an antidote to Philomena, we should all go to see the excellent Wag the Dog the 1997 black comedy film produced and directed by Barry Levinson and starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. Now those guys really knew how to manipulate the media.

As an antidote to Philomena, we should all go to see the excellent Wag the Dog the 1997 black comedy film produced and directed by Barry Levinson and starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. Now those guys really knew how to manipulate the media.

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Philomena – an Oscar for Dench

This film is a scathing and damning indictment of the practices of the Irish Catholic Church. All the more so because the central character refuses to condemn, and finally forgives, the nuns who destroyed her life. The tone of the film is carefully nuanced. You’d expect Philomena to be angry, but she’s not. Steve Coogan’s character, Martin Sixsmith is, but his anger is contrasted to Philomena’s faith and her refusal to condemn the nuns or the church. Indeed, it was not until the end of the film, when the immense duplicity of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in County Tipperary is finally revealed to her, that she finally agrees to having her story published.

How much of this is true will naturally be the source of some debate as the Catholic hierarchy moves into damage control. No doubt much of the criticism of the film will be that it is a carefully managed, anti-Catholic diatribe, which it is. It is also a great film.

Judi Dench is magnificent as Philomena and will surely rival Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine for an Oscar. One critical difference is that Dench’s Philomena is a character we can sympathise with, her naive charm and sense of humour combines with her refusal to condemn to make a far more likeable than the abrasive and self-centered Jasmine.

The film’s ending is deeply satisfying, there is no happy ending, just closure.

At the end of the Martin says to Philomena “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” To which Philomena says,  “That’s very beautiful Martin, did you make it up?” The Oxbridge educated Martin replies, “No, it’s TS Eliot.” To which Philomena replies, “That’s all right. It’s still very beautiful.”

The Desolation of Smaug – too little butter, too much bread

For died-in-the-wool Tolkien fans this second in the film versions of The Hobbit is rather like Bilbo’s description of himself as “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” The Lord of the Rings needed three films to do it justice whereas three films for The Hobbit, at around one sixth of the length of LoTR, was always going to be stretching things a bit thin. So there’s a bit of padding.

Much of the padding is pyrotechnics: the scenes where the dwarves reignite the furnaces under the lonely Mountain is visually brilliant, however it serves no useful purpose in terms of progressing the plot. So too is the pursuit, down the river, of the dwarves in their barrels by both the elves and the orcs. This sequence of scenes in particular is reminiscent of the sword-fight scenes in Chinese fairy tales of the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon genre. Some may find that the repetitive scenes of elves routinely chopping up orcs to be fairly repetitious.

By comparison, the scene where Bilbo first encounters Smaug and his hoard of treasure is brilliant and faithful to the original both in tone and imagery.


The original illustration of Smaug in his lair is well captured in the film.

There is a large amount of plot material added to meet the requirements of three films.

The budding romance between the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and elf maiden Tauriel (Evangaline Lilly) will likely test the patience of the purists. Given that the relationship between Glimli and Legolas in LoTR was made all the remarkable by the long-standing enmity between dwarves and elves, this Romeo and Juliet lookalike seems to be beating the gun a little bit.

The presence of the goblins is a significant change from the original and the presence of the Bolg, played by orc regular Lawrence Makoare, and his minions certainly creates a significant level of tension lacking in the original story. The pursuit of the dwarfs by the orcs certainly adds a continuity to the plot that is lacking in the original story.

Director Michael Jackson takes the opportunity of filling in much of the backstory for LoTR in The Hobbit particularly in relation to the growing menace of Sauron. This central battle between good and evil is brilliantly captured in the scenes where Gandalf ventures into Dol Guldur, the fortress stronghold of the necromancer. The standout scene from this sequence is where the figure of the necromancer morphs into the eye of Sauron in a brilliant combination of images.

Much of the material the is introduced into the film appears to be faithfully drawn from Tolkein’s longest work The Silmarillion wherein lies the fertile ground for the Hobbit franchise.

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The case for the reintroduction of public flogging.

The report in The Age newspaper that the Victoria’s work safety authority,Worksafe, has been paying lawyers to minimise claims by their injured worker clients constitutes an argument for the return of public flogging, if not, then certainly the reintroduction of the use of the stocks.


The lawyers involved in the scandalous process appeared to have been working for both parties in a court case. This means that they get paid if they win and they get paid if they lose. Unfortunately their clients, the injured workers, do not seem to be aware that their lawyer is actually also working for the other side.

No amount of weasel words such as

”targeted plaintiff firm strategies”.


“meet(ing) a range of performance criteria, which includes achieving a timely outcome for injured workers’ claims for compensation and reducing the use of the courts’ time”

can disguise what this is: a gross abuse of trust and a blatant and cynical exploitation of the legal system by Worksafe and worse still, it is a gross exploitation of the centuries-old and well-known rapacity of lawyers,

Help, master, help! He is a fish hangs on the net,

Like a poor man’s right in law.

Pericles II, ii, 153

Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the donkey, refugees and asylum seekers

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat discusses a range of perspectives on the biblical Nativity story, most of which seem naïvely wrong. However, he does make one useful point:

Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message – the common person as the centre of creation’s drama – remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.

Many people, myself included, do not subscribe to the theology of the New Testament that is found in the Gospels but will agree with what Douthat terms the “doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights”.

The Gospel according to St Matthew describes the Flight into Egypt where Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled the infanticide of King Herod (surely one of history’s really bad guys). The interesting thing about this description is that it is just that, a description. There is no sense of moral outrage in the narrative, certainly no solutions.

Joachim_Beuckelaer_-_The_Flight_into_Egypt_-_WGA02113Early refugees arrive by boat

The is one of the important elements of the narrative of the Gospels, they describe in a series of parables what happens to ordinary folk. In this particular story, it is about dreadful persecution of the common people by those in power.

Christmas is an opportunity for us to reflect on the stories such as these and to consider the plight of 5 million people displaced from Syria and the 30,000 people languishing in detention centres in Australia.

Farmer Abbots barnyard animals (6): Clarence, the Carbon Tax goose

Clarence, the Carbon Tax goose was not like the goose of mythology, he did not lay golden eggs which was okay because he hadn’t been designed as golden egg laying goose. Rather he was the kind of goose that was meant to keep the pond clean by eating the weeds. However, the eggs he did lay turned out to be a nice little earner for the farm. But Farmer Abbott was unimpressed.

Trouble was that Farmer Abbott had a different view of geese in general. “The only good goose is cooked goose,” he used to say. So Clarence was for the chop once Farmer Abbott had taken over Fair Dinkum farm. The problem for Farmer Abbott was that he didn’t have a big enough axe to chop off Clarence’s head.

He was hoping for a bigger axe for his birthday in the middle of the next year but until then he had put up with Clarence. The problem for Farmer Abbott was that the longer Clarence kept the pond clean and kept laying his eggs, the more everybody thought it might be a good idea to keep him on rather than turning him into a late Christmas dinner.

Farmer Abbott’s barnyard animals (5): Mince the Poodle

Mince the Poodle is one of many dogs in the barnyard. Most are working dogs but Mince is something different. Mince is not really a working dog and spent most of his life hanging out with the show pony.  Mince has been taken out to round up the cows to get him to act like a working dog but he doesn’t have the patience to be a mustering dog and just runs round barking, making it much more difficult for all the other dogs to do the job. Recently Mince got into the chook shed creating a huge fuss. A couple of the bigger roosters took to Mince and gave him thorough scratching but that didn’t help, he just ran ran barking even more. Farm Abbott had to catch  him, tie him to a fence and throw back of water over him to calm them down. Trouble was, that chooks all went off the lay  for a week. Which pissed everybody off. Nowadays, Mince is kept on a very short lead but you can see him wistfully eyeing the chook shed every now and then.

Farmer Abbott’s barnyard animals (4): Buttercup the diesel rebate cow

Buttercup the diesel rebate cow has  a paddock all to herself. This is to give her the  opportunity to become fat and  produce rich milk with lots of cream. Unfortunately, Buttercup provides only limited benefit to the Abbott farm, producing enough milk to put on the kid’s cereals but nothing more.

This is because Farmer Abbott has an agreement with his next-door neighbours that they can jump over the fence and  milk Buttercup whenever they feel it.   Which they do on a regular basis.

No one quite understand is why it is the case but most don’t realise that the next door neighbours pay Farmer Abbott’s golf club fees each year.

Farmer Abbott’s barnyard animals (3): Priscilla the paid maternity leave show pony

Priscilla the paid maternity leave show pony is something of an anomaly in the barnyard where everybody is expected to make a useful contribution. As far as most of the other animals can see Priscilla’s only contribution is to go off to pony shows and prance around. The difficulty is that she’s a very unsuccessful show pony because she is dead ugly, very clumsy and incapable of performing the tricks that she is meant to perform.

Many of the other barnyard animals don’t really like her very much but  for some reason the Green family  from down the road really love her and insisted on  riding her at the pony shows  where they only succeed in making themselves look more ridiculous than they normally are.

The way that Farmer Abbott came by Priscilla  is subject to a lot of rumour, scuttlebutt and slander. One thing is clear, he didn’t consult anyone before purchasing her. He just turned up one day and said “I’d like you to meet Priscilla the paid maternity leave show pony.”  Almost everybody was completely gobsmacked but it was impossible to return her and get the money back. And there were dark mutterings  about his tendency to make irrational and expensive decisions after a night in the pub with his mates.

It his more reflective moments, Farmer Abbott has regrets about agreeing to buy Priscilla and tries to think of some way of making her useful.  When he can’t come up with anything, he just has another beer.

Farmer Abbott’s barnyard animals (2): Floppy the negatively geared rabbit

Floppy, the negatively geared rabbit, is another one of those animals that has been around for so long that everyone accepts him as  part of the barnyard furniture. No one quite knows how he came to the barnyard but everyone admits that he doesn’t do much except consume a lot of the typical rabbit diet of eats roots shoots and leaves.

Over the years, Floppy and his greatly extended family  have become increasingly expensive to maintain.  Getting rid of Floppy  and his offspring is going to be extremely difficult, as everyone has grown up with a pet rabbit and is extremely attached to it.

However, taking the knife to Floppy would be a boon to the dog food industry and take pressure off barnyard resources.