Eevee’s resident reviewer, Rob Wood gives us his take on hotly tipped Oscar contender, Philomena – a heart-wrenching story of one woman’s quest to find the son she gave up for adoption…
For at least an hour after watching Philomena you’ll hate nuns and, by extension, tall penguins. The film tells the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench: Notes on a Scandal, Skyfall), an Irish pensioner searching for the son who was ‘sold’ by her seminary in 1955. Fifty years later her story finds its way to Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan of Alan Partridge and lots of other things that weren’t Alan Partridge), a recently out of work spin doctor attempting to get back into journalism with the ultimate human interest story. Sixsmith begins to unravel the path back to Philomena’s child, leading the mismatched pair to America in search of answers.
So, is Philomena funny or will it make you cry? It really depends on the mood you’re already in. The movie is withholding; it avoids moments of emotion, and so you’re left to fill in the blanks. Philomena’s daughter is introduced early on and then never seen again no matter how useful she would be in exploring the impact of each new discovery. There’s an enjoyable movie written around the ‘true event’ roots. Every moment where a writer has been given free reign is a joy – Philomena’s visit to the Lincoln Memorial is brilliant, but then something that actually happened rears its head and we’re forced to zoom out.
Coogan suffers the most – with his portrayal of Sixsmith unable to get off the ground while shackled to a real man. Sixsmith is a little snobby, a little condescending, but not enough to show growth throughout the movie. His casual rudeness to a waitress early on seems like a marker against which later self-improvement will be measured. Unfortunately for us, it never comes. Despite this, he just isn’t bad enough to work as a counterpoint to Philomena. Indeed, in the final scene of the movie he’s the only outlet for the audience’s own reaction and he isn’t nearly vitriolic enough to release the built up pressure.
Writers, Coogan and Jeff Pope are happy attributing comic lines to Sixsmith and Philomena, but when it comes to immediate emotional reactions, they back off – too respectful to rewrite a real woman’s private moments. There are two scenes in the movie where Sixsmith has the chance to manipulate Philomena to help his story. In a purely fictional account he’d take the first and leave the second, he’d grow, but you can’t represent a real person like that so he refuses both utterly, killing the relevance of either.
This, ‘fill in the blanks’ approach influences every aspect of the movie. Does it condemn religion? Depends how you feel about religion. Is there closure? Depends how you feel about closure. The only point which the movie asserts for itself is that Philomena Lee is an admirable person. The galling thing is that it works. Forcing the audience to write their own scenes is cheating but it is effective. Whatever other problems the movie has, you always feel what it wants you to feel.
Ultimately, Dench is the key; she’s never given any particularly stunning scenes – and yet, she somehow plays her role perfectly. There isn’t a moment of screen time when Philomena isn’t a real person, and it’s because of that that the movie gets away with so many ‘imagine how she must feel’ moments. Dench communicates such a complete person that you can imagine the scenes that are missing.
It’s not a bad movie but it could, and probably should, have been far better. We simply don’t see enough. The outrage you’ll feel by the end is a reaction to real, awful events rather than to a story well told. When you have a twisting, tragic tale and a star who is a master of her craft, your movie should inspire a more powerful reaction than the same story told in a pub. Sadly, Philomena doesn’t.
When not throwing rocks at the brides of our Lord, Robert makes poor life decisions and then writes about them – http://absentapologies.blogspot.co.uk