“Philomena” lost me as soon as Judi Dench uttered the words “bi-curious” and “beard”. It’s a sly cheat by the screenwriter(one of whom is the film’s co-star, Steve Coogan)following a tricky deception. Two-thirds of the film is spent setting Philomena(Ms. Dench, of course)as a lovable, yet naive rube—and then the rug is pulled out from under us regarding her unforetold wisdom. I imagine much of the audience would chuckle at the revelation. But I’m calling bull merde. It plays like amateur night and it stinks of writer’s concoction. And what a shame, because up to that point “Philomena” had actually been pretty good. Heavy-handed, but still pretty good. That scene derailed it for me however, and had me lamenting what’s happened to director Stephen Frears’ touch. He used to be such a gifted technician, but twice this year now(including HBO’s “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight”, reviewed here in November), Frears has fallen short by straying too far from his center of gravity. “Philomena” is a compelling tale though, I’ll certainly give it that.
Martin Sixsmith(Mr. Coogan, just fine in an obvious role as frick to Philomena’s frack)is a disgraced journalist and governmental advisor that intends to immerse himself in writing a book on Russian history. Soon after this decision, by virtue of a chance meeting, he switches focus to the “human interest” story of Philomena Lee(Ms. Dench, also fine, but she can perform this type of role in her sleep by this point). Seems Philomena—like many young, unwed, pregnant, Catholic girls from mid-20th century Ireland—was put to work at a convent and allowed minimal access to her child after he was born. Philomena and her little boy Anthony endure this existence for over three years. And then the horrible day arrives when Philomena realizes that her boy is being whisked away to an adoptive family in the United States—a fate that befalls all of the young women working at the convent in Roscrea. Fifty years later, Philomena and Martin set out to locate Anthony, in an oddyssey that is part unconventional road trip and part journey of self-discovery. Secretive nuns, missing birth records and a flight to Washington D.C. rapidly all come into play.
I’m pretty certain I’ve identified myself as a liberal Democrat on this blog before. Pro-choice, pro-gay marriage—yeah, that’s me. I’m also a baptized, confirmed, former altar-boy, lapsed Catholic, who now identifies himself as an Atheist. In other words, in multiple ways, “Philomena” is preaching to the choir. But I do require some degree of subtlety in the art I frequent, and Stephen Frears has chosen to paint this canvas with a sledgehammer. It’s so obvious where “Philomena” stands that it turns shrill and intrusive as it works towards its preaching and sentimental finale. The main character is drawn for the majority of the movie’s running time as a somewhat doddering, excessively polite, old simpleton—and then she displays an acute level of awareness and wisdom out of left field. It works like sandpaper against her affinity for the simplistic novels that she avidly reads as the character of Martin snobbily dismisses them. “Philomena” labors hard to manipulate its audience, and its box office and critical reception proves that the stratagem is working. I’ve heard it said that the film is making “grown men cry”. Well, not this grown man. It’s a highly competent production with a couple of strong professionals in the lead roles. But it’s casting a bait that I’m not biting. Call me heartless. Call me jaded. I simply wish that “Philomena” was more honest. Pity. Grade: C+
next review up: “Captain Phillips”