Mark Reviews Movies

Philomena

PHILOMENA

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Sean Mahon, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references)

Running Time: 1:38

Release Date: 11/22/13 (limited); 11/27/13 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 27, 2013

There are a multitude of ways to react to the sort of roundabout and, ultimately, hopeless situation that is presented in Philomena. The film is as much about two dueling worldviews as it is about examining the differences in the responses to the emotionally tearing scenario that sends a kind-hearted elderly woman on a cross-country and cross-Atlantic trip to find a piece of her past that she never forgot but thought had been lost, only to discover that the entire journey may have been for naught.

Both of these characters are realized and performed so well that one would be hard-pressed to definitively say whose story this actually is (The title, obviously, instills a little bias). One is a woman whose faith—both in the religious sense and in the basic goodness of the world and decency of human beings—is tested and wrenched to the breaking point. The other is a reporter who has no real interest in human interest stories—a man with little interest in other people, really—but who finds himself an active, emotionally vested participant in the struggle of a woman he has only just met. She shows the best qualities of humanity through her stasis, and he displays the potential for growth.

That the film starts as a comedy about a clash of values, in which we know both characters could easily dislike each other but are either too polite (in her case) or dependent on the other (in his case) to actually say anything about it (He does get in a few sarcastic jokes at her habits, but she either misses them or, again, is too courteous to reprimand him), keeps us off-guard for the emotionally potent turn it takes. There's the strong suggestion early in the film through a series of flashbacks to the woman's youth that this journey is not going to be a fair one for anyone involved, but just how unfair it turns out to be is one of those cruel ironies that fate, the universe, or bad luck throws in the way of people just trying to do right.

The reason the film, which could easily emphasize the troubling situation, succeeds beyond the story's melodramatic leanings is the simple fact that Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope's screenplay is about the protagonists' reactions to the cascading revelations instead of the revelations themselves. It begins with the chance meeting of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, playing the man whose book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee is the basis for the film) a disgraced former communications man for the government in London and the daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) of a woman who has recently revealed to her daughter that she gave birth to another child while she was a teenager. Fifty years later, Philomena (Judi Dench) still wonders what happened to her son after the convent where she lived and was forced to work gave him up for adoption.

At first, Martin is skeptical of doing a human interest piece, which he considers to be below him (Philomena loves such stories). Desperate for any work, though, he pitches the story to an old editor friend and gets an assignment.

Their first stop is the convent in Ireland, which provides the first opportunity to see the distinct ways in which the two try to get what they want to know. Martin is indignant at the barrage of bureaucracy and deception the nuns throw their way, and he has every reason to be. The stories—of mothers visiting their children for an hour a day before the inevitable day arrives that they might have to watch helplessly from a window as strangers take their children away forever—are genuinely infuriating, and it only gets worse when Martin starts to take in the local gossip. The convent's official statement is that all adoption records were destroyed in a fire, but what they don't say is that the fire was an intentional purging, lest anyone question their method of essentially selling children.

We expect—indeed, almost demand—that Philomena, herself a victim of what Martin calls "evil" (He's always looking for a good angle, whether he truly believes it or not; he believes it this time), have the a greater level of anger than Martin, but she is gracious, even after learning that the only document to survive the "fire" is one that bars her from even trying to make contact with her son. One can hardly imagine that kind of composure, but Dench plays this woman of an unnaturally kindhearted disposition with such sincerity that quickly makes sense. Coogan's performance is easier to overlook, given that we can identify more readily with his reactions and that his character is a passive observer to events, but it is still as assured as Dench's in signaling shifts on how events affect him.

Through some research, Martin learns that Philomena's son was brought to the United States, and after discovering his identity, the two begin to get a clearer picture of the man in ways they would not have expected at the start of the investigation. The tensions between the two become more tangible. Martin, an avowed atheist, cannot fathom how Philomena is still a devout Catholic, and she cannot understand why he pushes so hard to right the wrongs of the past when no one has the power to change it.

Does she meet her son? Well, she does and doesn't, and it's best to leave the answer at that. It's a bittersweet paradox that ultimately means Philomena, like its central characters, undergoes its own transformation—from a jovial road-trip comedy, to a mystery that is equal parts infuriating and depressing, and, finally, to something that finds hope in the mire of the unknown.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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