TORONTO - When Steve Coogan came across the real-life story of an unmarried Irish Catholic woman who tries to find her son 50 years after nuns forced her to give him up, the British actor was moved.
The story had such an impact on him that he and a colleague wrote a screenplay based on the tale. Coogan subsequently asked Judi Dench to take on the lead role and convinced director Stephen Frears to helm what became "Philomena," screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"I was really deeply affected by it," Coogan said of the real-life events that inspired the film. "It was a very simple story."
The project also saw Coogan — who plays the BBC reporter who helps Philomena Lee search for her child — experience a shift in his personal approach to different faiths.
"I definitely learned to have more humility in regard to other people's beliefs," he said.
"It's about learning to co-exist with people who have a different world view. I might not be religious but I share lots of the values of my religious friends and members of my family."
While "Philomena" is critical of the way the Irish Catholic church treated unmarried mothers in the 1950s, Coogan said he hopes the film highlights the simple resilience of faith and the ability to forgive.
"In terms of just recognizing the dignity with which certain people go through their lives in the name of their faith, those people are forgotten often, especially in scandals that engulf the church," he said.
"What's unfair about that is that people who are of that faith, who lead diligent, decent lives, they get kind of tarred with that brush, which is wrong. They're honourable people. That's what Philomena is."
Coogan maintains that the Catholic church should apologize for the way it treated women like Lee, but added that the film isn't intended to deride religion.
"I'm hoping that people will see it in the spirit it's intended," he said. "I think that people will be supportive of it because it dignifies people of simple faith, it doesn't attack the little people."
The Toronto International Film Festival runs through Sunday.
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