Late Review: PHILOMENA

Based on a true story, the Oscar-Nominated Philomena, one woman’s search for the son she gave up, quietly exposes the trials of unwed mothers banished to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland and their search for redemption.

But that is nowhere near the whole story…

Philomena Lee, subject of Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee which inspired the film, graced headlines again this week as she was granted an audience with Pope Francis. It is perfect press for a film about faith, hope, and forgiveness; a narrative that weaves with surprises in only the way the truth can. But it’s the surprisingly effective relationship between Sixsmith and Philomena and the revolutionary impact each has on the other that is the real story.

Martin Sixsmith (Steven Coogan), a down-on-his-luck journalist, is attempting to escape a recent scandal for which he may or may not have been responsible. A man so wrapped up in his professional life that his health and home life are now in jeopardy, Martin needs a path back to the living. His golden ticket comes with those three little words cynical reporters like himself loathe: “human interest story.”

Stephen Frears directs the Steven Coogan/Jeff Pope penned film based on the tale of real-life Magdalene girl Lee and the search for her son. When a British newspaper agrees to fit the bill for the quest, Martin drags Philomena on the trail, caring little for the “daft woman” and even less for the ending, as long as it has one. But as we continue the hunt, the focus shifts to the effect this journey has on the recovery of Martin’s soul.

Steve Coogan is at his best as Sixsmith, presenting the journalist as equal parts Ricky Gervais and George Clooney. We are privy to the world through his pessimistic eyes and his changing views of Philomena and her journey. She is the mother he needs, a matron of optimism and hope, never letting the truth of her situation ruin the search, knowing she must see it to the end. Coogan, often underrated in films like Hamlet 2 and Tristram Shandy, emerges as a leading man, not only sharing the screen with Dame Judi Dench, but thriving there. At one low point, a horrifying discovery washes over him, and he commanded every ounce of his body to drop, as if the air fell out of the room.

Dench portrays Philomena as a no-nonsense, simple woman: what you see is what you get. At times, I felt the one-liners and amazingly understanding air a bit cinematic; however, with reflection, it works. Philomena is a woman who has survived so many horrors and injustices, and yet, she can forgive. Through faith, time, and love she has discovered a remarkable ability to live by the old axiom: you attract what you put out. It’s a lesson-bomb for Martin, ticking away the entire film, until it explodes at exactly the right moment. Dench once again demands your attention any time she is on the screen completely transforming herself, once again, as the demure Irish Catholic, quietly delivering her knowledge grenades waiting for you to catch up. It never ceases to amaze me how Dench is completely effortless — a master class.

Frears, director of a few of my favorites including High Fidelity, The Queen, and Dirty Pretty Things, elevates the material that much more by providing us with the silent, private moments that you rarely see in a film like this – a film that could have spiraled into treacle. Dench fills the frame, tears in her eyes or a smile pursed on her lips; we are given a window into her thoughts. Her soul. It’s an intimidating tactic, but one that is fully realized and successful. These characters are family, they’re us, and they demand you truly see them. The colors change with the continents, the moments, the journey. Every attention was paid to composition of the frame, wardrobe, history (the film is set is 2003), and it is in those successes that the audience is given the ability to get lost in the story. To be taken away.

The story is very specific, not troubling itself with attempting to reveal more stories of these young Irish girls; this is Philomena and Martin’s story, and ultimately, a tale of forgiveness. The Sean Ross Abbey, a convent and home for unwed mothers for forty years, is shot much like Stepford or the Overlook Hotel. Ominous with its unmarked graves and barred doors, it can be seen as a place of asylum or horror, depending on the viewer.  For Philomena, the place is always approached with respect; a feeling Martin finds less endearing and more uninformed. He is determined to expose what he sees as a fraud of Catholicism. The anger at this place, at God himself, bubbles the entirety of the film until it boils over in a moment of abject horror and comedy involving an old nun in a wheelchair and a locked door. It’s fearless and understandable. I’d have rolled that nun right out of the window, as I suspect other viewers might.

As a whole I felt the movie was a bit rushed, however, even without stories of other mothers. I would have liked to spend a bit more time with the peripheral characters, particularly Mare Winnigham’s Mary. I suspect the filmmakers sensed we would be better served spotlighting the moments between Martin and Philomena reflecting on all they had learned, but at a zippy 98 minutes, there was room to let these moments breathe. And the more we learn about her son’s life, the more we want to know about those around him.

FINAL THOUGHTS: One of the year’s best films, Philomena belongs in the Oscar race; it has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Score, and Adapted Screenplay. However, I ultimately felt cheated out of another fifteen minutes delving into the rich cast of characters. A solid film worth your time. Bring Kleenex if you have a soul.





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