Thursday, December 19, 2013

Philomena (2013)

Whenever I heard that Philomena was coming out, I kept wondering if it was another Disney movie.  Doesn't that totally sound like a Disney princess name?

Philomena is one of those 'based on a true story' films where the story seems too strange to be true.  Unless you've already read the book it's based on, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, or are a huge fan of random, human interest stories, I'm guessing that most haven't heard of this.  In summary, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) got pregnant as a teen, and was sent to live in a convent in Ireland.  She was forced to give up her son for adoption, and kept this a secret for 50 years.  Philomena decides to track down her son, mainly with the goal of learning if he at least led a happy life.

Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who recently lost his job, is approached to write her story and help find her son, but initially refuses as he's not a fan of human interest stories.  Obviously he comes around though, otherwise the book he wrote about it wouldn't exist.  Martin and Philomena track down leads, and hit several dead ends, but always manage to find a clue that allows them to continue the search.

The longer they are together, the more Martin becomes invested in her story, and by the end it sometimes feels like it's as much his story as it is hers.  In fact when it comes to the wrongs done to Philomena, Martin is more disgusted and angry about them than she is.  I've always enjoyed characters that have that transformation from casual disinterest interest to very passionate.  Writing this story is just a job for Martin as he begins.  His generally cynical nature was something I identified with, and I really enjoyed Steve Coogan in the role.  On another note, you should hear his Michael Caine impression.  It's really great.

Philomena is an interesting contrast to Martin as she's one of those people that somehow sees the best in everything, and has an overly forgiving nature, even when it would be totally acceptable if she didn't want to forgive.  Many times she appears as someone that's never been more than a few miles from her home, and has an almost childlike fascination with anything new to her.  She's also extremely naive to the point where maybe she was portrayed a little too daft.  Judi Dench is sweet though and it was nice change of pace to see her do something different compared to the more serious performances were used to seeing from her.

It's interesting they didn't change the names, as it makes certain organizations look very bad, if not downright evil.  I have to wonder if the film simplifies the events in the book, as otherwise there would seem to be an amazing string of coincidences throughout.  It comes together a little too tidy at times.  I also found it a little melodramatic in parts (I really hate using that word), as well.  For example, they are able to track down a friend of Philomena's son, who refuses to take their calls and sends them away when they are at his door, but you'll find there didn't seem to be a real reason for him to be that way.  Maybe this makes more sense in the book, but in the movie it felt like they forced some additional conflict for dramatic purposes.

Director Stephen Frears does a good job of balancing the more serious dramatic elements of the story while keeping it grounded and relatable.  The story moves at a good pace while keeping a lot of detail and character moments in there.  I'm betting that much of the dry humor came from Steve Coogan's work on the screenplay, co-written with Jeff Pope.

I'm trying not to give too much away, but it doesn't quite turn out like you think it's going to.  Its bittersweet conclusion manages to be satisfying though.  I also couldn't shake the feeling that I just watched a buddy cop film, considering the odd pairing of Philomena and Martin.

Philomena is a heartfelt, humorous and interesting true life story that's bolstered by the great chemistry between Steve Coogan and Judi Dench.  I think the Oscar talk is a little premature, but it is worth watching for their performances.  I thought it was a nice change of pace from most of the films out in theaters now.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars


  1. Glad you liked it. I'd say Dench is a lock for an Oscar nomination. Does she give one of your favourite female performances this year?

    1. I'll flip flop on my Oscar statement already. How's that for commitment? :) I keep forgetting this hasn't been a particularly strong year for female lead performances (but it has been strong for supporting). I think she probably will get a nomination. I can't think of very many performances this year that were better. I still think it's Blanchett's year though.

      Thanks again for the comments, Jack. :)