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

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