Monday, November 25, 2013

Philomena (***)

Directed by Stephen Frears


Stephen Frears is one of the most consistent filmmakers working today, which makes it all the more unsettling that he's spent his last few movies orchestrating English prestige Oscar bait. When you think that he was the man behind such excitingly vibrant films like My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters and High Fidelity, it feels a bit like betrayal to see that he's got both the Freddie Mercury AND the Lance Armstrong biography coming down the pike. All that said, is there anyone playing the Oscar bait game who makes films as good as Frears? Is there anyone who really believes that Helen Mirren didn't deserve her steamroll toward an Oscar for Frears' The Queen? And while his 2009 collaboration with Michelle Pfeiffer, Cheri, was mostly dismissed as prestige pandering, it is actually an exceptionally made adaptation of Colette's novel of the same name. Frears is one of the few directors I trust in the Oscar bait director's chair, because he does actually care about making a good movie, even if he doesn't exactly have to. If he'd made The Iron Lady two years ago, I might have actually gone to see it.

But from a political, Award-scoping perspective, Frears' newest film, Philomena has another chip that it may be the final film performance from the Dame Judi Dench (a factoid that immediately bursts if you believe the rumors that she's just signed on to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2). The combination of Dench and Frears here is the kind of spark-plug, alerting actor/director collaboration that seems made for Oscar pundits to find content in the quiet middle portions of the year. But is the movie any good? That kind of discussion seems almost secondary, a quality film seeming simply like icing. It's easy to forget that Dench was very good in the James Bond film, Skyfall, just last year and just turn to what's happening right now. And Dench is quite good in Philomena, and I don't think it'll take much effort to get her seventh Oscar nomination. But the movie itself, is also quite good - and I think that makes a bigger statement about Frears than it does about Dench.

Dench plays the title character, Philomena Lee, a British septuagenarian who has been forever plagued with the memory of losing her young young son, Anthony, fifty years ago. As a young woman, Philomena became impregnated after a sexual fling with a young man at a town fair. Sent by her family to live with nuns in Roscrea, Ireland, the sisters of the convent agree to take in Philomena and her unborn baby, as long as Philomena agrees to work as an indentured laundry lady. The nuns are severe and irascible, and they only allow Philomena to spend time with her son for one hour everyday. But that one hour is usually the highlight of her entire day, especially since Anthony seems to share a desperate friendship with Mary, the baby daughter of a fellow shamed laundry woman at the convent. But when American parents come into the convent to adopt Mary, they decide to take Anthony with them as well when they see the two young children playing together. The pain of losing her child never stops paining Philomena as she gets older, and the supposed shame of succumbing to lust and getting pregnant at a young age has kept her quiet... until now.

Her revelation comes hand-in-hand with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) getting fired as a Labour government advisor. Sixsmith a former reporter for BBC, sits unemployed with a self-diagnosed depression. He takes up running to help with his mood, but it isn't until he is approached by Jane (Ana Maxwell Martin) - the daughter of Philomena - to take up the story of her mother, that he begins to find a project that might bring him out of his funk. When Martin meets Philomena for the first time, he's taken aback by her overwhelming enthusiasm and her unflinching faith in God, especially considering the part that the church played in displacing her child. Martin's cynicism going head-to-head against Philomena's overall sunny demeanor presents most of the film's conflict as well as a good deal of the movie's laughs. The film never digs deep and picks a side regarding the whole God concept, instead allowing the characters to fight it out amongst themselves. That strategy takes a good deal out of the film's bite, but allows for a couple of fantastic performances.

What Dench does with the character of Philomena is terrific, capitalizing on her usual demeanor as the steely, stiff upper lip of English cinema, and playing the complete antithesis of that. Dench doesn't really have to do much here and its not the kind of transcendent acting that you can see at the movies right now (Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, Brie Larson in Short Term 12 to name a couple). But I'm not sure how much that really matters. Dench's performance is the work of a consummate professional, hitting her emotional marks with excellent precision and rising to the occasion when the film's heavier moments call for it. Standing alongside Dench, Coogan plays a perfect foil. Coogan (who also has a co-writing credit on the film's screenplay) has always been a comic star in England and the US, but his characters have usually been imbued with a sad-sack self-loathing that has always been a part of his persona. In Philomena, he takes that persona to the extreme, giving the spry Dench the perfect flub to bounce off of.

Frears realizes that the chemistry between Coogan and Dench doesn't need any extra frills and does his best to give these characters the proper context. Frears' best work is usually the films where the actors are given top priority. He realizes the values of his casts, though in this film it is an admittedly small one. This is nowhere near the quality of High Fidelity or Dangerous Liasons, but it is a solid production filled with manipulated, comforting plot points that allow the audience to go home feeling warm and fuzzy inside. But the performances from Coogan and Dench are definitely worth watching, these two differing performers collaborating on something close to a charming duet. I was surprised with the gravity with which Coogan was able to bring the to heavier aspects of the film, and I was pleased with just how pleasant Dench was able to make this role. These two performances certainly elevate the quality of the material, but it certainly helps that a filmmaker like Frears is behind the reigns, elevating the story above, say, The Iron Lady.

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