Directed by: Stephen Frears.
Written by: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope based on the book by Martin Sixsmith.
Starring: Judi Dench (Philomena), Steve Coogan (Martin Sixsmith), Sophie Kennedy Clark (Young Philomena), Mare Winningham (Mary), Barbara Jefford (Sister Hildegarde), Ruth McCabe (Mother Barbara), Peter Hermann (Pete Olsson), Sean Mahon (Michael), Anna Maxwell Martin (Jane), Michelle Fairley (Sally Mitchell), Charlie Murphy (Kathleen), Cathy Belton (Sister Claire), Simone Lahbib (Kate Sixsmith), Sara Stewart (Marcia Weller).
It would be easy to dismiss Philomena as simple, middlebrow fare made for old people and Oscar voters. There really is no denying that Philomena is “middlebrow” – safe entertainment with clearly drawn lines between good and bad that will make the audience laugh and cry at various points, and have them leave the theater feeling good. All of that is true. But is also doesn’t suggest what this movie does well. Directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and featuring two excellent performances – by Coogan himself and Judi Dench – Philomena may not be an overly challenging film, the pleasures it offers may be small, but it is precisely the movie it wants to be – and somehow pulls off the trick of being sentimental, but not overly sentimental. In my recent review of The Book Thief, I complained that the film tries so hard to get the audience to cry, that I simply resisted it. The reason why Philomena works as well as it does is because it doesn’t seem like it’s trying at all.
The film is about Philomena Lee (Dench), an Irish lass who in the 1950s does the worse thing an young Catholic teenage girl can do – have sex. She gets pregnant – of course – and her family is so ashamed they send to live with the nuns. In exchange for taking her and her child in, all Philomena has to do is sign away her parental rights, so the nuns can sell her child, and then work for four years essentially do slave labor in the laundry. They let her see her son for one hour every day – until, of course, someone shows up with some cash, then he’s whisked away with no one bothering to tell Philomena beforehand. The bulk of the film takes place 50 years later – in 2003 – with Philomena still haunted by her “decision” to give Anthony up for adoption. Finally, she tells her daughter about her lost long son. Into their lives comes Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a former journalist, and now a disgraced former government spokesperson, who has no idea what to do next. He doesn’t do “human interest” stories – but hell, it’s better than doing nothing so he agrees to help Philomena track down her long lost son – thinking he’ll get a good story out of it.
Frears is a journeyman director, who career still has a remarkably high consistency level – at least until the last few years, when he makes stinkers like Cheri (2009) and Tamara Drewe (2010). While I always like when he goes darker – in films like The Hit (1984), Prick Up Your Ears (1987) or Dirty Pretty Things (2003) – he is also at home with prestige fare like this – having made Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) and The Queen (2006). Here he keeps the direction light, and the pace moving – knowing full well that the stars of the show are Dench and Coogan, and their unexpected chemistry together. For the most part, Frears simply stays out of their way.
The performances by the pair really are good. Coogan is a fine comedic actor – but he excels most at playing himself – literally in films like Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes or the pair of Michael Winterbottom films Tristam Shandy and The Trip. In Philomena, he goes a little bit dramatic – but still retains his comedic side – some of his best moments are his deadpan comic asides (my favorite “ Oh look – it’s a series”). He does get to flex his dramatic muscles a few times – and he’s surprisingly effective when he does. Then there’s Dench’s performance – which is really what makes the film worthwhile. Dench is the kind of actress who has sometimes been nominated for Oscars simply for showing up – I thinking her nominations for Chocolat, Iris and the aforementioned Mrs. Henderson Presents. Yet there is a tendency for some to write off all her work in the same way – and that’s simply not fair, as she was excellent in her other nominated work – Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare in Love and especially Notes on a Scandal – not to mention a host of other films, like last year’s Skyfall, where her small performance elevated the entire movie to arguably the best Bond film ever made. It would be easy for her to go broad in Philomena – to make her into a caricature, but Dench doesn’t do that. Her Irish accent is spot on, but subtle – showing Americans that you don’t need to make yourself sound like the Lucky Charms leprechaun to play Irish. And Dench also makes the daring choice to underplay her characters biggest dramatic moments, which makes them all the more impactful. Her Philomena is a woman who has all the reasons in the world to be angry at the Catholic Church, yet she maintains her faith in God, and refuses to give herself over to that anger. It is some of the best screen work Dench has ever done.
Philomena is a safe movie – it won’t challenge you very much, and doesn’t really try to make things overly complex and messy. It is the very definition of middlebrow entertainment. But it’s well done middlebrow entertainment, and contains a wonderful performance by Judi Dench at its center. It may not be my idea of a great movie – but I know a lot of people who would disagree with me. I think I’ll recommend it to my mother.