Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review: "Philomena"


Judi Dench has received rave reviews for her performance in Stephen Frears' Philomena. It is the true story of a woman's cross-Atlantic search for the son she was forced to give up for adoption. The film's English-language poster, with its bright yellow background, portends that the film is a quirky comedy. The French-language poster is slightly less charismatic, but it depicts a positive energy. Finally, the Italian-language poster is most in sync with the story: slightly darker in themes, with a hint of a smile from Dame Judi Dench. Dench is one of the most successful English actresses, with six Academy Award nominations (winning Best Supporting Actress in 1998 for Shakespeare in Love), twenty-seven BAFTA nominations (six wins), ten Golden Globes nominations, twelve SAG Awards nominations, and a Tony Award. She is almost always considered a front-runner for acting glory when she appears in a film. Unfortunately, I was not as enamoured with her performance as Philomena Lee. The film just seems too generic. Perhaps I felt duped by the film's overly cheerful poster and I was unprepared for the emotional heft of the story. On the upside, Dench's chemistry with costar Steve Coogan is terrific. Coogan regularly plays more comedic roles, but he tones down his personality to match Dench's talents. Philomena is directed by Stephen Frears, an accomplished English director. The director has found great success with Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Grifters (1990) and The Queen (2006), but he has also had numerous flops and disappointments, including Mary Reilly (1996), Chéri (2009) and Tamra Drewe (2010). Philomena is an important story that feels all too trivial and small-minded. It attempts to take a widespread problem and focuses too much on the relationship of a woman and a reporter. I wish that the film had allowed itself to consider the broader impact. In a year with fantastic performances from women in a wide array of films, I doubt Judi Dench has really been given the best opportunity.

Philomena Lee (Dench) is an Irish-born woman living in London. As a young teenager, she was sent to a convent in the small Irish town of Roscrea because she was pregnant. Forced to sign away her parental rights, her son was eventually adopted. Fifty years later, she reveals to her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) that she had been forced to abandon her son. Philomena is a God-fearing Catholic who kept her son's existence a secret because of personal shame. Through pure coincidence, Jane meets Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a recently unemployed journalist and political adviser. Jane introduces Martin to her mother and he agrees to help Philomena search for her son. Martin agrees to write a human interest story for Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley), who funds a trip to Washington, D.C. for Martin and Philomena.

As a single story, Philomena works as the personal journey of Philomena Lee. Yet, as a true story, it never truly addresses the greater problem of forced adoption. The themes of religion and guilt are so present in the film that the film's ending is unsatisfying. The screenplay was co-written by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan. I am left to wonder if Coogan truly understood the emotional impact of the story. Coogan is most well known for his collaborations with Armanda Iannucci, the man responsible for In The Loop (2009) and HBO's Veep. Both are incredibly funny, but neither offer much in terms of emotional impact. Judi Dench does offer a great performance, but it still pales in comparison to Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine and even, shockingly, Sandra Bullock in Gravity. The film is worth seeing to watch Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, two very different actors, dance alongside each other. I just wish that the film had realized its potential. Philomena tries too hard to be a light, sometimes comedic and heartfelt story of a woman's search for her adopted son, but there was too many potential in the story to allow it to be so limited in its scope.

My rating: 3 stars of out 4.

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