“A mystery… an odd couple… a journey that will change lives.” That could be a pretty vague but accurate tagline for Philomena. You couldn’t blame anyone reading that description of dismissing the film as a tasteless drama or a wacky comedy. In which case they would have every right to blame me for making them miss one of the best films of the year. British director Stephen Frears, alongside actors Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, create a wonderful story with characters that are amazing in their everyday charm.
‘Philomena’ in a Nutshell
Philomena stems from real events, a fact that does not downplay the story and instead makes it more admirable. Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) documented his encounter with that little Irish old lady (Dench) in his book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. 50 years ago, her parents imprisoned her in a convent because of her teenage pregnancy. Her baby was later put up for adoption. For financial reasons, as well as to overcome a scandal that cost him his political adviser position, Martin chooses to assist Lee in locating the whereabouts of her biological offspring. “I did not abandon my child,” Philomena explains with conviction. “He was taken from me.”
The Adventures of Martin and Philomena lack explosions, shootouts, car chases or trips to exotic places (although the affable and impressionable elderly woman would argue with about the “exotic places” part). Their odyssey raises no stakes nor threatens world safety. However, t does suggest a scandal that would tarnish the Catholic Church—yep, another one of those. Two or three effectively used swear words nonwithstanding, the plot of Philomena is appropriate for audiences between the ages of 13 and 113.
Not that Kind of Chemistry (You Pervs!)
The (non-romantic) chemistry between Coogan and Dench is impossible to ignore. Their relationship elevates an intriguing narrative that reveals its secrets elegantly and without feeling forced. Not since the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious—with its characters walking down the stairs—has so much suspense been generated with so little action. Dench’s climactic monologue works regardless of the audience’s personal beliefs. That’s because the film’s message is critical neither of religions or its organizations, but of people’s prejudice. Frears demonstrates his versatility here, as well as his mastery of the slow simmering plot. Two qualities Philomena shares with Frears’ previous works like Dirty Pretty Things and The Queen.
I realize I’m being more vague than usual in my review. This is simply because I want audiences to enjoy Philomena‘s twists and turns. I bet it will be a film school staple in the near future, an example of working with a streamlined screenplay. Part of the lesson will be devoted to how Coogan, a popular British funnyman, adapted Sixsmith’s book (together with Jeff Pope) to star in the project. Simply because no one would have offered him such a good role otherwise. Dame Judi Dench shows aspiring actresses how to create a plain, cheerful character without depriving it of dignity. Philomena is a pleasant surprise that, to paraphrase its humble protagonist, I didn’t see coming.
Movie title: Philomena
Movie description: Surprising in its simplicity, this British tale showcases the talent and versatility of its stars and director.
Date published: 2014-01-15
Director(s): Stephen Frears
Actor(s): Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Michelle Fairley