REVIEW: Philomena

13 01 2014

PhilomenaLondon Film Festival

At first glance, the real-life story of Philomena Lee would seem like the stuff of depressing drama. After being impregnated as a teenager, she is thrown into a convent and forced to sign away her son. 50 years later, Philomena (Judi Dench) is still haunted by his loss and embarks on a journey to find him – only to uncover some unsettling truths.

In the hands of the average screenwriter, “Philomena” would have emphasized the tragedy and milked the story for every tear possible. Yet Philomena’s quest is filtered through the lens of Steve Coogan (yes, Damien Cockburn from “Tropic Thunder,” among many other roles) and Jeff Pope’s unique worldview, making it a rather different movie. It definitely has its heart in the very heartbreaking dramatic truth of her life; however, it’s a surprisingly and heartwarmingly hilarious.

Much of the humor comes from Coogan’s own presence as an actor in the film, portraying Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who takes an interest in investigating Philomena’s past. He’s quite the counterpoint to her seemingly incurable optimism: having just been fired from his government job, he’s rather merciless and defeatist. Coogan and Dench don’t just have a standard comic man-straight man routine going, though. They each express their worldviews wittily and distinctly, with both having moments of vindication and defeat.

Judi Dench in Philomena

Sixsmith lacks Philomena’s faith in people, God, and religion, finding himself stunned at how she can still believe in its good when it has done so wrong by her. They find out some horrifying details about what the Catholic Church did to Philomena, confirming many of his suspicions. Philomena, on the other hand, does not budge an inch in her convictions and makes any accusations that the film is anti-Catholic just seem specious.

Dench endows her remarkable character with a saintly aura. Philomena’s remarkable capacity to love and forgive after all she discovers is truly inspiring. Dench masterfully portrays her undying hope at all times, even when confronted with the gravest of news. The result of her performance is nothing less than renewal.

Director Stephen Frears executes the story with great poise. He manages to land all the emotional moments without being mawkishly. Frears also ensures the humor is well-timed, never undermining the dramatic arc of the story. Most importantly, he insures that justice is done to the fantastic performances in “Philomena” as well as the courageous woman herself.  A-3halfstars

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15 responses

13 01 2014
jjames36

Agreed. This is a very good film with a powerhouse performance at its core.

13 01 2014
Marshall

In any other year, I’d be pulling for Dench in Best Actress. But the category is SO strong this year.

13 01 2014
jjames36

Sure is. The person I think was the best (Elle Fanning) won’t be nominated for a single award, and I can’t get that bothered . . . because there are so many other deserving candidates, too.

13 01 2014
Marshall

Still need to see Ginger and Rosa. It’ll happen one of these days. I promise!

13 01 2014
jjames36

Here’s the thing: that movie is really, really well made, and even more brilliantly acted, but it isn’t fun to watch. Not in the least. Don’t feel badly that you’re not running out to see it. 🙂

13 01 2014
Marshall

Really? I know next to nothing about it. I don’t generally go seeking out information often because you run the risk of getting way too much of it sometimes.

13 01 2014
jjames36

In that case, I will tell you only this:

I have thus far included Ginger & Rosa in my Top 10 in part because Sally Potter’s directorial decisions are terrific, in part because the actors are even better, and mostly because 12 Years a Slave is the only 2013 film that evokes comparable levels of emotion.

13 01 2014
Marshall

Interesting you would compare its emotional impact to 12 Years a Slave, which I hear most writers saying they find rather removed and emotionally cold. Then again, such coldness is an emotional response in and of itself…

13 01 2014
jjames36

Well.

I don’t think 12 Years a Slave anything approaching removed or emotionally cold. I think it immersive in the horrors and discomfort of a corrupt system, and in Solomon’s resolve. Solomon doesn’t emote much, but only so he can survive, so he can endure. I say this both as a filmgoer and a sometimes writer – 12 Years’ screenplay is every bit as powerful as its imagery.

I know plenty of other bloggers and critics have had similar experiences, but, obviously, there is always room for disagreement.

14 01 2014
Marshall

Yeah, I took a gander at the screenplay the other day trying to find a scene. It’s good stuff.

P.S. – You wouldn’t happen to remember when the shot of Solomon’s broken fiddle occurs in the events of the film, would you? I couldn’t find it in the screenplay.

14 01 2014
jjames36

I can’t remember for certain, but I think he breaks it to help produce ink for his letter, after he realizes berries won’t work.

15 01 2014
Marshall

Guess I’ll just have to see it again. Darn.

13 01 2014
ninvoid99

I was really surprised by this film as I didn’t know what to expect other than a typical drama but it was so much more. Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are superb in this film.

13 01 2014
Marshall

Sometimes having low expectations is nice…

13 01 2014
ninvoid99

Agreed!

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