Friday, November 29

REVIEW: Philomena

Directed by Stephen Frears
2013 Drama
1 hour 38 minutes
From 20th Century Fox

Judi Dench
Steve Coogan
Sophie Kennedy Clark
Anna Maxwell Martin
Mare Winningham
Peter Hermann
Sean Mahon
Ruth McCabe
Wunmi Mosaku

This is my third review in a row for a film based on a true story.  It was based on a book by Steve Coogan's character concerning a journey he took with Dench's character to find her long-lost son whom she was forced to give up by nuns back in the 1950s.  I wish I liked it more than I did.

I rushed from my Thanksgiving dinner to the theater full of hope.  After all, it does star Judi Dench and that's never a bad thing.  And while she turns in another of her marvelous portrayals, to me her performance was undermined by a so-so script, somewhat disjointed, often ringing a bit hollow.  Overall, I thought the work was better suited to one of Dench's Masterpiece Theater outings or perhaps a Hallmark Hall of Fame piece.

An unwed teenage Philomena winds up in an Irish convent where she gives birth.  Her son stays in the convent as well but her contact with him appears to be limited.  She still had to live as the nuns dictated and one day, without her approval or even knowledge until the very last minute, her child is given away.  The scene where she runs to an airless window watching her son disappear is heartbreaking and the actress who played the young Philomena, Sophie Kennedy Clark, brought it all home for me.

The older Philomena is seen reminiscing about all this because she realizes her boy is turning 50 years old.  An irony is that she has never told a single person of her son.  She now corrects that and our story gets rolling.

She is determined to find him.  She enlists the aid of a writer down on his luck and out of a job.  Philomena's daughter overhears him at a party and decides that he may help his mother out in finding the son and the writer could write a great story that will charm the birds out of the trees and all will be restored to any former glory they might have enjoyed. 

This is about all I can rightly tell you, lest I spoil the whole damned thing for you, but we're gonna have to work around it, rub up against a few plot points.  First up is that I didn't really buy into their hookup with the ease I think the writers wanted me to feel.  I felt rushed as an audience member to just accept certain things in the sometimes improbable story.  And I don't like to do that.  I don't want things explained to me, I want to be shown.  Let me discover some stuff on my own and I didn't feel that.  Maybe it really was so easy for the two real-life people, but perhaps there's a little touch of creativity in there.

Most everything that occurred with these two in their travels came easily.  Really?  The only ones who really knew what happened to Philomena are the few nuns still alive and they ain't talkin'.  So Philomena, who has no training in such matters, leaves most everything to Snoopy who sniffs things out pretty quickly.

I just never bought it.  The producers/director could have added another 15 minutes to the film and allowed us to learn more about the characters, their relationship together (before the trip) and then to have shown more of how and why things were working out the way they were.

At one point, Philomena says she always thought her son was gay.  Really?  She must have been clairvoyant because it's hard to buy that a toddler was giving off the kind of vibes to a young, unskilled mother that he was gay?  And at one point she tells the writer that her son is likely bicurious.  That word made it out of the gay dating websites and into the lexicon of a 65ish-year old, still a little fresh from the morning dew, Philomena?  Well, come to think of it, maybe this was just a little too racy for the Hallmark Hall of Fame.

I can't say I understood the behavior of some of the people these two encountered and if it was done to be true to the real-life encounters, then, hey, again, how about showing me why that was.

The Catholic Church specifically, religion generally and God Himself get a good raking over the coals.  If I don't do anything else here, this may serve as a public service announcement to those of you enmeshed in whatever way in those items mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph.  You may have to take your smelling salts.    

Despite Philomena's bad treatment from the nuns, she still turns to God and her religion at every point along the journey.  If something good happened, it was because God was touching her.  If it didn't happen the way she wanted, she would want to stop along the road to a church and go to confession. Perhaps she was still undeserving.

Undeserving of what, her traveling companion wants to know?  And from whom?  We likely hear more from the screenplay on how he feels about all things celestial than we do of Philomena's viewpoint.  It may be hard to hear for some.  Certainly his impolitic screaming at the nuns, particularly a very old one, and even using the F-bomb, will cause some patrons some pause.

I love Dench's face, particularly as the camera lingers on her.  There was that quiet determination, her eyes lit with eagerness and awakened with possibility, flecked with turbulence and a sense of the forlorn.  I loved it.  What an actress.

Steve Coogan has an impressive résumé but I have only seem him in The Indian in the Cupboard and Ruby Sparks and I can't picture him in either one of those.  He was new for me here.  I thought he more than kept up with Dench.  When the credits rolled I saw he also co-adapted the writing and co-produced.  So nice acting job or not, he's responsible for my lacklustre review.

And Stephen Fears, the director, also gets his fair share of lethargy for the project.  He had worked with Dench before in Mrs. Henderson Presents and is also responsible for such films as The Queen, Pretty Dirty Things, The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, Prick Up Your Ears and My Beautiful Launderette, so I know he can do good stuff.  This wasn't a bad film at all... it just wasn't what these others were.

The film did shed some light on the selling of babies through convents without the approval of the mothers.  It's valuable to be reminded of it.

Favorite Film #5

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