Philomena (2013) Film Review, a movie directed by Stephen Frears and starring Steve Coogan, Judi Dench, Charlie Murphy, Anna Maxwell Martin, and Simone Lahbib., Neve Gachev, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Charlotte Rickard, Charles Edwards, Nichola Fynn, Xavier Atkins, Elise Edwards, and Sean Mahon.
This film continues this year’s trend of films that tackle tough subjects in an accessible, even-handed way that won’t exhaust the audience. It seems to be a passion project for Steve Coogan; not only does he star in the film, but he produced and co-wrote the screenplay as well. His dedication to the subject is evident, and it is appropriately “British”. Stephen Frears’ direction navigates the film between the lines of overdramatic and sticky sweet.
It tells the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irish woman whose unwed pregnancy resulted in her residency at a Catholic convent, working to receive food and shelter along with her son, Michael. Unexpectedly, she witnesses her son being given away by the convent’s nuns to a visiting couple. Fifty years after the incident, Philomena’s painful memory continues to haunt her and she decides to finally do something about it. With the aid of a grumpy journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), she ventures across a continent to find her son – with several twists and revelations along the way.
Like most awards-season films, the strength of this film lies with its performances. Judi Dench skillfully expands her range to play the type of character we’ve yet to see her play: a loving, albeit naïve, woman with not a bad bone in her entire body. There is no righteous indignation at what has happened to her and her son, even though such emotion would be deserved. Instead, hers is simultaneously a painful and hopeful outlook on her situation; scarred, but not compromised; insistent, but accepting. Her naïveté is none more present than when she asserts, with a straight face, that, “[My son] was a gay homosexual.” Her Philomena is a character from another time; she defines “endearing” and is the type of mother we all deserve. It is, indeed, an Oscar-worthy performance and her pains and excitement are experienced by the audience along with her.
Her comrade, Martin, classically fills the role of the foil. His character is a jaded, cynical, and angry man, upset with what has happened to him professionally. At the urging of his editor, he covertly tries to spin Philomena’s (in his mind, worthless) “human-interest” story to a pre-determined ending. But his efforts at manipulating her are thwarted by her unpredictability: he simply hasn’t met a person so innocent with pure motives. She is disarming and prompts some reflection on his own attitudes toward forgiveness.
In some ways the film resembles a buddy-comedy evidenced by the battle of wits played out by the two main characters. Their journey takes them to another continent; they spar over investigative tactics; and they keep each other in check. They learn to love each other along the way, and the audience is the third, unseen comrade on this journey who sides with both of them in alternation.
The whimsical, child-like musical themes reinforce the idea that Michael is stuck in time in Philomena’s mind: he is still that little boy that was taken from her, even though he was taken from her fifty years prior. While, admittedly, on paper it doesn’t jump out as a great idea, here it works.
This story is one of forgiveness. The audience identifies with Martin, who witnesses the many revelations that seem too good to be true and can’t help but offer up his cynical opinion about what ought to be done. Continually, he is surprised by Philomena’s reliance on love, charity, and compassion for those who have wronged her. It inspires thoughtful reflection upon exiting the theater, and reinforces our own ideas about what it means to forgive.
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