Sunday, December 8, 2013

Philomena Movie Review

The trailer for Philomena is selling a very different movie than what Stephen Frears made. I admit to wanting to avoid this movie at all costs, but for my yearly goal of watching everything that gets an Oscar nomination (and it’s looking ever more likely now that I’ve seen it that Judi Dench will be nominated). But I should have given Frears more credit as a director. After all, he’s made some movies I really admire and one I love (as well as a couple of stinkers). The publicity campaign makes Philomena out to be a maudlin story about a woman trying to find her long lost son, who was taken from her and adopted fifty years earlier. It looks like the focus is on a daft old lady who says silly little things, the kind of simplistic humor that appeals to the lowest common denominator.


The reality is that this movie, based on a book by journalist Martin Sixsmith about a woman who was one of many victims of the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland, has something much more important and much deeper to say. The Laundries were an institution of the Catholic Church where girls of low morals (as it was considered) were sent. Basically, they were places for sexually promiscuous girls who got pregnant. In most cases their babies were taken from them – if they even survived the deliveries, which were not attended by doctors – and adopted out to other families. Philomena Lee spent years trying to get information from the convent where she was sent, but it wasn’t until she was paired with Sixsmith that she got anywhere.

Steve Coogan is known principally for his great comedic writing and performing, but as Sixsmith he get into the rare dramatic side of his talent. He plays him as a serious and professional man who has a tongue for biting sarcasm and quick quips. He’s a bit of a snob, at first refusing to take on Philomena’s story because human interest is for the “uninformed” and usually about same. But his career is on a downward trajectory and he decides to do it. Philomena is marginally like the trailer portrays her: she’s a simple woman who doesn’t need the refined pleasures that Sixsmith enjoys. Really it’s that her life just hasn’t afforded her the opportunity to travel in Business Class or drive around in a BMW. She knows it’s a German car, anyway. But she’s as comfortable staying in a four star hotel as she is eating at a local buffet at home.

To her, everyone around her is a person. Judi Dench doesn’t play her as either simple or na├»ve. Philomena Lee is one of the great characters of the year. She is resolved that she’s content with who she is, but she’s also racked with guilt over the loss of her son. She arrives at many things in life seemingly without thought and even Sixsmith comments on religious faith as something stepped into without consideration, but she slowly reveals herself as someone who has serious self doubt and tackles her religious faith head on. Dench is one of the great marvels of screen acting. She’s equally comfortable giddily laughing at the prospect of watching a Martin Lawrence comedy as she is steeling herself upon entering the convent that caused her greatest misery and robbed her of her sweetest joy.

Saldy, Philomena’s story – at least the part about her child being taken from her – is not unique. The Magdalene Laundries (so named because the girls were used as slave labor to pay their board) are part of a shameful past in an organization that has too many to name. We should be outraged as we watch, and any reasonable person will be, especially as the nuns in the year 2002 forestall and hinder information, having destroyed records years earlier. Sixsmith is our representation of anger on screen. Even as Philomena finds forgiveness for Sister Hildegard, the elderly nun who refuses, even in her dotage, to accept culpability for heinous acts, Sixsmith has some colorful (and amusing if the situation weren’t so tragic) words for her.

Because Coogan and his co-screenwriter Jeff Pope imbue Philomena with depth of personality and spiritual life, they elevate their story above the material. This is the stuff that lifts sentimentality above simple manipulative tearjerking. She takes a real emotional journey through the film that means something to her and enlightens her character. Sixsmith also changes, but less convincingly so, and more in the manner of a lesser story. You can pinpoint with great accuracy when he begins exhibiting his cynicism at his doctor’s office that Philomena’s story and her ultimate resolve will chip away at his approach to the world. I also could have done without Sixsmith’s even more cynical editor who regularly, and at well-timed beats within the screenplay, callously disregards the human trag

At the end of the day, Frears’ direction has to be applauded. It is his handling of the material that elevates the movie. He knows how to shoot the 1950s scenes with young Philomena first meeting the young man who will unintentionally give her a son. Frears knows just how to capture moments from the right angle to reveal the emotion of the scene rather than tell us where it is. He knows exactly where to place his camera so that the full breadth of Dench’s performance is visible. It is not a great movie, but it is certainly a great example of its type. And that’s all I really look for at the movies.

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