Sunday, February 23, 2014


Stephen Frear's Philomena is like most films where a mother searches for a long lost child, full of hope and heartache, and ultimately a bittersweet climax that will leave you moist-eyed. After having a son at age 15, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) lives in an Irish Catholic asylum operated by Magdalene nuns in the 1960s to punish "sinful" girls, many being unwed mothers driven away by their shamed families.  Dench, who has often played perky, intelligent characters who harbor secrets, plays Philomena in her older years as a good-natured Irish mum with the heaviest of hearts; her son was adopted by an American couple without her consent and she's not seen him in since. On her son's 50th birthday, she falls into a terrible depression. Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote and produced the film) learns of her story and, cut adrift from his own career as one of Prime Minister Tony Blair's aides, decides that a "human interest story," although beneath his usual line of work, might be what it takes to correct his shaky career path.

Sixsmith, whose eventual book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee serves as the basis for the film, is the sort of cynical reporter who despises the "foot in the door" techniques used by muckrakers, but knows how to use them and is actually good at digging up the dirt. The role is like lightening in a bottle for Coogan, who manages to retain some of his old arrogant film persona, but is gently respectful of Philomena and grows to enjoy her company as they travel to America together to seek out her son. Even when Sixsmith does get rankled by her working class habits, such as her insistence on describing the plots tacky romance novels, he shows great patience and plays along. The few times he loses patience with Philomena usually come back to haunt him; in movies like this, the good-hearted types are always right, you know. But Coogan also makes Sixsmith, for all of his grumbling, quite a likable chap.

What Philomena and Sixsmith learn in their search for her son opens up conversations about the Catholic church, religion, politics, publishing, and what other cultures feel about Americans. Philomena, for instance, fears her son may have grown up to be obese, for she saw a documentary about how "huge" Americans have become. She also fears that her little boy may have grown up to be homeless, and torments herself by imagining the worst. It turns out her fears are not entirely unfounded, but in a story so filled with sharp turns, it would be ungentlemanly to spoil any of them here.

Some of the arguments about religion are a bit on the sophomoric side - Sixsmith's inability to understand how a loving deity would make sex so pleasurable if it was considered a sin sounds like the stance taken by a precocious high school sophomore, not an Oxford educated man who once worked with the Prime Minister of England. Yet, these little volleys about religion help portray Philomena's character. It's her forgiveness of the nuns who sold her son  that will leave you in awe,  as well as her constant refusal to blame the church for any of her troubles. It's as if her love of God trumps any shortcomings on the part of the narrow-minded nuns and priests of her past. To watch the outspoken Sixsmith nearly humbled in the shadow of her faith is one of the cornerstones upon which Philomena is built. 

Frears has directed so many fine films. A boxed set of his work might include: Prick Up Your Ears (1987)  Dangerous Liaisons (1988) The Grifters (1990) The Van (1996), High Fidelity (2000), and The Queen (2006).  He's comfortable directing costume dramas or modern comedies, crime films or romances. Philomena, which will be remembered as one of his greatest efforts, is an example of a seasoned director using everything in his arsenal to tell a story that is both straightforward and deceptively rich. There are no tricks here, no blinding stylistic choices, just good, traditional storytelling with human characters. It's true that stories of separated mothers and sons are easy tear-jerkers, even if they aren't well-made. But wouldn't it be nice if they were always as perfectly pitched as Philomena?

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