Nov 22, 2013
Philomena is the real story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who became pregnant when she was very young, was forced to have the baby by nuns in a convent, who then gave the baby up for adoption without her consent (and worse). The movie is based on journalist Martin Sixsmith's book, directed by Stephen Frears and written by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, who plays Sixsmith.
There is another, extremely harrowing movie about the evil nuns of Ireland called The Magdalene Sisters, by Peter Mullan, which few people saw, and which is a catalog of faith-sanctioned atrocities, all based in reality. That one, you watch at the peril of sinking into a despair from which there is no rescue. In Philomena, which is clearly intended to reach a mass audience, you'll laugh and you'll cry.
Unlike The Magdalene Sisters, Philomena is not an exposé. It is an uneasy mix of feel-good holiday fare with a very dark backbone. It is a salad of genres: a based on a true story road movie, an odd couple/buddy comedy/weepie, starring an elderly, goodhearted Irish woman (Judi Dench, aka God), and an ornery, cynical, sophisticated writer (Steve Coogan), who helps her search for her lost son.
The comedy is zippy and adroitly performed by God (never once pandering for laughs) and Coogan, who are total pros. The story has some surprising twists, and a heartwarming message about love and tolerance (the opposite of what the nuns practice).
I'm not sure that the film succeeds at reconciling the buddy comedy with the horror of Philomena's story; it tries to please and outrage the audience at the same time. Frears does a solid job; and so it is that Philomena is highly enjoyable, and quite moving, yet obvious and awkward, in spurts.
Now, back to God. Dench can effortlessly play frumpy, regular women just as well as she can play any and all Shakespearean female characters (and all the males, if she so desired), fearsome queens of England and the mother of James Bond.
With her, you never see the homework. If she cares about accents, costumes, make up or other outward tools of character creation, it's hard to tell, because everything seems to come from deep inside. She has the most spectacular vocal delivery, a precise and expressive instrument. Listen to her sibilant, malevolent voiceover narration in Notes on A Scandal (my favorite Dench film performance of all time). Words seem to have invented for her to say them. I bet that if any movie needed to have a female God character, she'd be the first they'd call.
In this movie, she plays against type (she tends to do alpha females), with waves of quiet, powerful human emotion. Philomena is a complicated character. Determined to find her son, unsophisticated but smart, almost annoyingly forgiving. You can feel her ancient heartbreak the minute she appears on the screen. Yet she harbors no feelings of revenge (those are left for Sixsmith, who seethes at the cruelty). She is not a crusader, but her inexhaustible desire for closure has heroic stature. She shows no self-pity as the character nor self-indulgence as the actor, just enormous grace and dignity. In this, she seems to be more truthful and authentic than her own movie.