Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Philomena (2013) – Review

Review: Philomena is a moving drama with some interesting religious overtones. The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, a young Irish girl who became pregnant in the 1950s and was abandoned by her father at an Abbey where she gave birth and was forced by the nuns to give up the child for adoption and work off her debt to them. Years later, Philomena now an old woman, she decides to look for her son with the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith. She just wants to know that he had a good life and whether or not he ever thought of her.

Forgetting the overarching themes of the film and just looking at it as a drama, Philomena works quite well. Director Stephen Frears structures it with home-movie-like flashbacks to pull on the audience’s heartstrings. The leading performances are also very good, and Frears gives each actor lots of character moments, endearing them to the audience. Frears does a good job pulling the audience into the narrative and getting them to care about these characters, and yet he still keeps it light enough saving it from becoming overly depressing. It is a tearjerker that will also find the audience laughing, balancing the comedy and drama very well. Frears really finds a perfect tone for the film, from an entertainment perspective

The narrative itself is fairly simple and it does not ask much of the audience. To some extent, it is a film about two people at crossroads in their lives looking for meaning – something we can all relate to on some level. While the lighter tone does work really well in presenting the narrative as more entertainment than heavy drama, it does also leave the film feeling a bit insubstantial.

However, what is the most interesting aspect of the film is its overarching theme of religion. Philomena Lee is a Catholic who wholly believes in God and enacts the best principle of her religion in life – she is kind to everyone and forgiving (regardless of the wrongs done to her personally). Meanwhile, Martin Sixsmith is an atheist and an elitist intellectual who seems to just be angry at his place in life and annoyed by everything. At face value, it seems as though Lee is the happier of these two, but she struggles with her faith. The Abbey has wronged her to such an egregious extent that their actions feel unforgivable. And yet, she is ready and willing to forgive them at every turn, something that infuriates and frustrates Sixsmith. He just cannot understand.

This raises an interesting perspective of organized religion (in this case Catholicism). On one hand there is a person of faith who lives her life in a manner that we should all aspire to, and on the other hand you have an institution of faith that has committed malicious transgressions (seemingly against the principles of their own faith). Religion has always been a source of both extreme goodness and violence throughout history. The film presents examples of both, but with a specific distinction: the goodness is in the heart of the individual (in this case Lee) while the evil is in the interpretation of one’s religion to forward one’s own agenda (the nuns in the film). This speaks a bit to what some believe were Jesus’s own ideas on organized religion: that goodness is within each of us and it is up to us to strive towards it on our own and that an overlord telling us what is good and evil, right and wrong is not the way, which flies in the face of how religions have developed (likely as a mode of social control and organization). The film is very critical of organized religion and yet treats faith with complete affection.

Sixsmith is at first irked and endless annoyed by Lee – her faith and simple mindedness. But even he is eventually enchanted by her ability to struggle and still find the good in life. The film appears at first to be about her journey – and yes the story and narrative are about her search – but the real dramatic arc follows Sixsmith and his transformation, kicking and screaming, with Lee as his guide.

There is a lot to like about Philomena. It is a film that is funny in moments, features strong characters, an involving narrative, grave drama, and asks interesting questions about religion. However, as stated above, the drama overall does feel slightly subdued by the lighter tone that the film takes. While everything works really well, the film just never really grabs the viewer in an affecting manner.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Stephen Frears is one of the most prolific filmmakers in Brittan. His films tend to be up and down quality wise, but when he is on his game he does make rather good things like The Hit, Prick Up Your Ears, The Grifters, High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things (my personal favorite of his work), Mrs Henderson Presents, and now Philomena (after a dry spot of a few not so good films).

Alexandre Desplat delivers a fantastic score, one of the best of the year so far. It is playful, yet very sincere and moving – fitting the film’s tone perfectly. Desplat has really established himself as one of the best (if not the best) composers working today. Here is an example of the fantastic score. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is very good as well. It captures the beauty of Ireland and the rural D.C. area. It also has a somewhat somber feel, tinting the emotional experience of the film. Alan MacDonald’s production design does a good job grounding the film in reality. Everything looks and feels authentic, which in turn allows the audience to focus on the characters and story.

The performances in Philomena are all very good. Michelle Fairley and Anna Maxwell Martin are good in small supporting roles. Sophie Kennedy Clark is wonderful as young Philomena. A girl entranced by a handsome young man, who pays the ultimate and agonizing cost of losing her child. The audience’s heart breaks watching her collapse in complete anguish. Steve Coogan is very good as Martin Sixsmith. Coogan always plays the same sort of characters, and with this film he has crafted a role (producing and co-writing the film in addition to starring in it) that feels very much like his other work but with an element of emotional growth. Coogan is great at playing a blustering elitist, but here there is a hint of warmth to him as well (especially in the end). Dame Judi Dench is fantastic as Philomena. She is sweet and lovable, but she is able to take the audience on an emotional journey as well. There is such a powerful struggle within her that she just cannot keep contained.

Summary & score: Philomena is not going to jump off the screen and grab the viewer, but quietly it is a very sweet and moving drama, led by strong performances from its stars. 7/10

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