Philomena More of a Play than a Movie, but a Moving One

Philomena (2013)
Directed by Stephen Frears
Pathé, 98 minutes, PG-13
* * * *

Nobody does dramatic pas de deux like the British. They love to put two talented actors front and center and just let them have a go. There are other characters in Philomena, but it’s essentially a two-person play on film: Philomena (Judi Dench), and the jaded fallen politician-turned journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who reluctantly agrees to help her uncover her son’s fate.

This film adapts the true story of Philomena Lee’s 50-year search for a son taken from her by the Irish nuns with whom she lived. It opens inside a 1950s chamber of horrors known as a Catholic convent, where Philomena Lee is a charity case/inmate. Like dozens of young single mothers, she slavishly toils for the nuns for the pleasure of the single hour per day they are allowed to be with their children. Each lives with the terror of knowing that the sisters are beating the bushes in search of ‘good families’ to adopt their sin-conceived offspring.

Flash forward to the early 21st century when an aged, widowed Philomena can no longer live without knowing the fate of her son, who would be turning 50. Her quest happens to coincide with Martin’s need to salvage his reputation. He’s a former Labour Party official who becomes the fall guy for deeds he did not commit, but from whose shadow he cannot escape. He’s also become a cynical bastard with very little interest in Philomena’s plight; Martin takes on what he feels to be a human-interest story beneath his dignity only because he’s out of work and it’s the only work-for-hire looming on the horizon.

The movie is as much about the developing rapport between Philomena and Martin as in solving a decades-old mystery. We expect Dench to be great, and she is. She also physically transforms herself into a dowdy woman of simple tastes and rock-steady faith–the exact opposite of Martin, who is more like an Icarus who survives the fall. He’s worldly, well connected, wealthy, and too angry to believe in much of anything. One of the film’s biggest revelations is that Steve Coogan can do drama. He is known on both sides of the Atlantic as a comedian (though I’ve never found him to be all that humorous). He, like Dench, stays within his role. Unlike what happens in far too many American films, both Dench and Coogan bend, but they never break. That is to say, there’s no conventional guess-we’re-all-the-same-under-the-skin phoniness. Quite the contrary; the Brits also excel at recognizing social class, and hard-to-traverse social gaps are a major subtheme within the script.

Speaking of the script, Coogan co-wrote it and he also helped produce the film, so we must assume that this project was one he found personally meaningful. The subject matter is biographical, though we’ve seen other films like this, including The Magdalene Sisters (2002). No spoilers here, though I will say that Philomena’s plight is among the many sins for which the Catholic Church needs to be held accountable. That topic assures that Philomena has a tailored audience waiting. (Ex-Catholics would make up the world’s 3rd largest Christian denomination. Practicing Catholics are the largest.)

Fine, but do we love Philomena as a movie? It has won a handful of awards worldwide, mostly at festivals. I liked it a lot, though it must be said that it just as easily could have been a play and might work even better on stage. When the film jets us to Ireland and Washington, DC, it feels more like scene padding and an excuse for class-based cheap comic relief than necessary detail. A stage production would require more character development on the part of cameos whose movie motives are incomplete. Still, watching Dench in anything is worthwhile, and the discovery that Coogan has both dramatic flair and screenwriting ability is its own reward, so let’s not be as cynical as Martin Sixsmith.

Rob Weir


Armory Show at 100: When Modernism was New

The Armory Show at 100
New York Historical Society, NYC
Through February 23, 1914

Taylor 1912
Two paintings from American artist Henry Fitch Taylor sum up the impact of the 1913 Armory Show–the first, from 1912, of a girl feeding ducks is saccharine enough to be from Thomas Kincaid. Now check out what Taylor did in 1915, just three years later. To say that the Armory Show rocked his world barely scratches the surface! It doesn’t really matter whether you prefer the first to the second, because there was no turning back the clock. The Armory Show marked the break between Victorianism and Modernism with such finality that, a hundred years later, it’s still the most important art exhibition ever to take place in the United States.

Taylor in 1915
The New York Historical Society gives us a small taste of what audiences saw a century ago. Its hundred sculptures, drawings, and paintings constitute just 7% of the 1400 pieces New Yorkers saw in 1913. Even this is a remarkable achievement given that works that were often ridiculed in the day are now “classic” works valued at many millions of dollars. More ironic still, they are also beloved icons that museums are loath to loan. Nonetheless, the sample is plenty to give us the flavor of 1913 and, because the display is in the NYHS, there’s plenty of accompanying context to consider. The exhibition took place at a crucial moment; among its contemporaries were the Industrial Workers of the World, the social problems images of the Ashcan painters, the suffrage movement, a surge in anarchist activity, labor strikes, and gathering war clouds in Europe that would, four years later, rain on America’s Progressive Era parade.

Augustus John
The Armory Show at 100 is revelatory on several levels, not the least of which is its ability to separate myth from reality. First of all, not everything there was shocking and quite a bit of it was uniformly praised. French Impressionists such as Monet and Renoir, for instance, were already beloved and American counterparts such as John Henry Twachtman and J. Alden Weir attracted kudos. Some works, such as those by Walter Pach, were fairly conventional, and the one that garnered fawning praise–Augustus John’s The Way to the Sea–is objectively an insipid exercise in unfettered sentimentality. On a more elevated level, not everyone could unravel symbolists such as Odilon Redon, but they viewed them as on par with allegorical artists such as Albert Pinkham Ryder and praised their “spiritual” characteristics. Just as long as they didn't get too creepy, like Edvard Munch, whose Madonna and Vampire induced mixed commentary.

Eberle-White Slave Trade
Second, Americans were not total naïfs at the time. Ashcan painters such as George Bellows and John Sloan paved the way for non-decorative painting, Sloan with his ungilded views of working-class life, and Bellows for showing the city’s seemly sides. There is, in fact, striking thematic similarity between the grotesque, zombie-like crowd faces found in a Bellows painting, and the angst-and-danger undertones of Munch. Among the big sensations of the 1913 show was Abasteria St. Leger Eberele’s bronze White Slave Trade and its powerful contrast between a cowering, legs clenched-together nude female and her hulking, legs astride, vulgar auctioneer. His expression is so vivid that we can (metaphorically) see the spit projecting from his open mouth and imagine saliva pooling at the edges. American artists also had familiarity with caricaturists such as Daumier, as evidenced by Guy Pene Du Bois’s Waiter!

What did induce shock were the Fauvists and the Cubists, the first because they were viewed as either incomprehensible (Henri Rousseau) or obscene, and the second because classically trained painters viewed it as the death of painting. Two works that illustrate this are both nudes, but cut from different cloth: Henri Matisse’s carnal Blue Nude and Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, the latter of which one critic famously panned as “an explosion in a shingle factory.”

The biggest revelation is that none of these works shock us today. We admire them (or not), rejoice for being able to see them, smile at some ‘old’ favorites, or perhaps yawn at their familiarity, but we view them as neither art’s demise nor its future. As you exit the exhibit in your non-agitated state, take a moment to consider that you are not shocked because, a hundred years ago, the Modernists won.

Rob Weir


Lonliest Planet too Boring to Be Gorgeous

The Loneliest Planet (2011/12)
Directed by Julia Loketv
IFC Films, 113 mins. Not rated. In English and Georgian.

This independent film did a scant $128,519 at the box office, but was such a sensation at film festivals that Sundance Select decided to distribute it. Reconsideration is definitely in order.

The film putatively follows an engaged couple–Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg)–on a high-adventure backpacking trip across the Caucus Mountains of Georgia. Since neither speaks more than a few words of Georgian, they hire Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) to guide them. That’s pretty much it. Along the way, Alex screws up by reacting cowardly when a group of mountain locals confront the trio. We think he’s feeling inadequate and unmanly, but given that Bernal only says a few dozen words in the entire movie, it’s hard to know. We also get Dato’s confession of a failed marriage and brief bonding between him and Nica, but very little happens, even less is revealed, and nothing at all is resolved.

So what did festival juries see in this film? Surely not fine acting. Bernal is quickly establishing himself as a one-dimensional bore on the screen who specializes in puppy dog eyes and hangdog expressions, but is incapable of much else. T’is time for him either to stretch or find other employment. It’s hard to say much about Furstenberg, as she’s nearly as silent as Bernal. We first meet her as a soggy nude jumping up and down in the shower. We don’t know why she’s doing that, we don’t find out why, and we never discover much of anything else about her except that she travels a lot and is trying to learn Spanish–perhaps to coax a monosyllabic word from her fiancé. There’s really not much one can say about the film’s script, except that it might have been a good idea to have one. Nor can one commend Lektev’s static direction, which runs the A to B gamut from close-up to long short.  

What is good is the setting. We see the Caucus Mountains in all its guises–rolling pasturelands, cliffs of loose scree, gently folded mounds, sweeping hill-and-valley vistas, easy strolls, and high-elevation oxygen depleting scrambles. It’s also beautiful to see the sunlight streaming through Furstenberg’s fiery red mane. But this isn’t enough and it’s hard to imagine why Sundance decided to promote a film that has bombed with audiences. If you want to see the Caucasians of Georgia, National Geographic is a much better idea. Flipping the pages will provide more movement than you’ll see in this film.

Rob Weir