“Just because you’re in first class doesn’t make you a first class person.”
2013 has been a long lasting storm of emotions all year long. Starting as early as March with the gritty family drama The Place Beyond the Pines, this year’s movies have managed to cave in our hearts on numerous occasions, providing a more relentless beating in recent weeks. 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, Prisoners, Captain Phillips, even Gravity have all dug deep troughs into my heart, and the forthcoming weeks aren’t much lighter with the introspective Her, the harrowing Lone Survivor, and the melancholy Inside Llewyn Davis rounding out the final weeks of the year. These tough movies are all some of the year’s best and I recommend each of them fully and unequivocally, but even I need to step away from some of this overwhelming emotional brutality at the multiplexes. This is where the quaint British dramedy Philomena comes into play, an easy melodrama about a mother searching for her lost son with the assistance of a snarky journalist. Written by co-star Steve Coogan, Philomena is warm and funny, if often heavy-handed and sentimental, and offers gentle jabs at the supposed menace lying within the Catholic Church.
Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is forced into an uncomfortable career crossroads when BBC lets him go. Mildly depressed, hiding even further underneath his boiling sarcasm, he finds himself on the receiving end of a human-interest story, which he reluctantly pursues realizing he has nothing to lose. The story involves Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a petite, 70-something year old woman who has been storing a crippling secret inside of her for about fifty years. When she was a teenager, she conceived a child in a convent where she was forced into labor to repent for her sins and repay the convent for their services. She was housed and fed while her child, a young boy, played in a nursery all day and was afforded a single hour of happiness with his mother each day. Then one day her child was taken away. Philomena watches an unknown family exit the convent with both her child and Philomena’s best friend’s daughter. A half-century later, she still has no idea what has happened to her son; the church blocks her every move, withholding details about him and refusing to get them into any kind of contact. It’s here, through a web of evil nuns, the Reagan administration, homosexual rights, corrupt adoption services, and a five-decade old, evolutionary maternal love, Martin Sixsmith finds an intimate story, a far cry from commonly published over-dramatics.
Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity), Philomena is hardly benefited by the Briton’s cinematic hand. Never one to elevate scripts, but rather one who has been lucky enough to find himself at the helm of several quality scripts, Frears’ successes have been, by and large, accidental. He’s a serviceable storyteller, but better off when the script seems to be directing him. That’s how Philomena feels – at the whim of what the script calls for, as opposed to dictated by Frears’ ‘vision.’ Granted, the story calls for little style since the substance holds so much water, so a vision in the auteuristic sense is hardly warranted, yet Frears does provide one stylistic sensibility to the overall production and its arguably one of the film’s biggest flaws. There are numerous flashback sequences that detail young Philomena’s pained ‘sin’, culminating with her witnessing her son being taken away and these flashbacks are shot on Super 16mm film stock. It’s a jarring difference from the elegant digital photography of our main storyline and comes off a little too forceful. The emotion is so embedded within the story already that to elasticize it anymore just becomes frustrating. These flashbacks definitely provide backbone to the narrative, but Frears’ strategy in conveying them is borderline sinister melodrama.
Thankfully, where Frears oversteps, the script – written by Jeff Pop and Steve Coogan – toys with content, adding layers of humor and brightness to something that seems much more fragile. Rudeness and a bite of mean-spirited sarcasm are met by lackadaisical naiveté, which creates a truly enjoyable and totally British sense of humor, navigating us through the interesting true life story of Philomena and Martin’s search. The scribes’ intelligent character sensibilities are of massive benefit as well since, in the end, Philomena is balanced perfectly on the shoulders of co-leads Dench and Coogan, who brew a chemistry so undeniable that any director would be foolish to try and overpower the acting on display. Coogan, a strong comic actor/writer, careens into straight man territory, but he does so very impressively with little fault or force.
However, the multi-hyphenate Coogan (writer-actor-producer) leaves ample room for the title role of Philomena who, as anyone could expect, is portrayed to near perfection by Dame Judi Dench. The veteran actress possesses such a miraculous range, embodying the tender and aging Philomena just one year after her final appearance as the fiery and commanding ‘M’ in the James Bond franchise. Her turn in Philomena couldn’t be further from last November’s Skyfall – where many pegged her for a surprise Oscar nomination, which unfortunately didn’t pan out – but her work here is controlled and valuable. Dench recites her lines with a sing-songy Irish brogue, saying more with simple gazes or tear-filled introspections than with any overdone showmanship. She’s contained, bubbling up in specific moments, whether it be to banter with Martin, plead with the convent nuns, or simply order breakfast at a hotel buffet. Dench proves to be particularly riotous at times, only assisted by Coogan’s reactionary body language. In one specific instance, Philomena details the entire plot of a romance novel, beginning to end, to Martin while they ride the cart through an airport to their gate. Martin can barely get a word in while Philomena, lost in sappy one-liners and Nicholas Sparks-isms, plots the novel cover to cover with full commentary spliced in. It’s the film’s funniest scene.
Philomena is probably the lightest film out in theaters right now. It definitely contains some emotional plot elements, but nothing as destructive as 12 Years a Slave, or as exhausting as Gravity or Captain Philips, or even as somber as Nebraska. It’s a movie about a mother searching for a son and somewhat gaining another son in the process. It’s a film about friendship, about parenting, about trying to accept the past and proceed into the future. It’s about moving past what’s wrong and understanding what’s right. It’s an easy film to digest – visually, thematically, emotionally – and will strike a chord with mother-son viewing pairs. While admittedly simple in execution and not wildly memorable as a piece of work, with great acting and a fine script, Philomena develops two soul-searching misfits and tells a fulfilling and impressive real life story. It’s 90 worthwhile, if hardly exceptional minutes of film.
Take dad to see Nebraska, take mom to see Philomena.
Review by Mike Murphy