Sunday, December 1, 2013

Movie Review: "Philomena"

The emotional and powerfully acted Philomena is based on the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irish woman who gave birth to a baby out of wedlock as a teenager while living in a convent, and then had her child given up for adoption by the nuns. (Unwed teenage girls were essentially indentured slaves to the convent, forced to work for four years to repay their "sins," and were forced to sign away any rights they had to their babies.) The baby was a secret to everyone in Philomena's life, although she thought about her son (whom she named Anthony) every day and wondered what became of him.

On Anthony's 50th birthday, the pressure of keeping him a secret grew too great for Philomena to bear. (She explained that she was torn between the guilt of having a child out of wedlock and the guilt of not telling anyone about him.) Enter cynical journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who resigned from his job as a political spokesperson amidst scandal not of his own making, and was struggling with depression and a lack of direction for his future. Although initially the idea of a human interest story is utterly odious to Martin, the more he learns about Philomena's situation, and is charmed by her utter lack of guile and pretense (something he's not quite used to), the more determined he is to help her find out what happened to her son.

The two embark on a journey to uncover the truth, and as you can imagine, both learn some important lessons from the other. (Martin, of course, learns more from Philomena than the reverse, but that's life Hollywood style, isn't it?) The truth is far different than either expected, and more than anything, Philomena is desperate to know whether her son ever thought about her. A devout Catholic, she can't quite reconcile her feelings about what happened to her son and how she was treated by the convent with the fact that she committed a sin in the church's eyes, which Martin cannot understand.

This is a funny, moving film, with two tremendously effective performances from Dench and Coogan. At this point, if you've wondered if there's anything Dame Judi Dench can't do, the answer, as far as I'm concerned, is a resounding no. Her Philomena is both cheery and conflicted, determined to see the best in everything and everyone despite her tribulations, which have affected her life for more than 50 years. (Martin laughs during the film that Philomena has told four different people they're one in a million.) While she may be naive to the world around her, she understands far more than one would expect someone with her background to. While Dench is mentioned as an Oscar contender nearly every year she appears in a film, a nomination is definitely deserved for this film.

I'll admit that I've never really been a Steve Coogan fan, as the few times I've seen him onscreen his performances have grated on me and come across as too smarmy. But he does a terrific job in this film—the egotistical manner many of his characters tend to have really worked in his portrayal of Martin, and he demonstrated great sensitivity and empathy in addition to his world-weariness. I really enjoyed his character, and was even surprised by him a few times.

I really enjoyed Philomena—it was charming and tugged at my emotions without being mawkish. And like Philomena herself, there's more to this film than meets the eye. Definitely one worth seeing.

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