3 1/2 out of 4 stars
Every year about this time, producer Harvey Weinstein releases a low-key British movie or two in the hopes of snaring spots on Top 10 lists and more importantly, Oscar nominations. Along with his brother Bob — and previously with the first studio they co-founded three plus decades ago (Miramax) — Harvey’s films have received more Academy Award nominations than any other producer over that same time frame. He is a marketing genius and knows how to manipulate and maneuver the awards circuit better than anyone else.
“Philomena” is exactly what you’d expect from a Weinstein production. It is a heartfelt (but not sappy) uplifting drama with a side of order of dry English humor and just enough mystery and intrigue to make it appealing to those who don’t usually like British films.
Also the most recent “M” in the James Bond franchise, Dame Judi Dench has been making these kind of movies for what seems like forever and it is a custom-fit for her classy style and understated sensibilities. As the title character, Dench plays an Irish Catholic woman who is probably a widow and certainly rife with misplaced guilt over an event that took place 50 or so years ago that has been gnawing at her ever since.
After being charmed into having sex at a fair, the naïve Philomena (played as a teen by Sophie Clark) gets pregnant, is sent to a convent, gives birth and pays for her “sins” by becoming an indentured servant. The only bright spot is the daily hour she is permitted to spend with her son Anthony who is cared for at the convent along with other children born under similar circumstances. At what appears to be the four year mark after his birth, Anthony is adopted by a Catholic family of means and whisked away to America.
Philomena is practically resigned to never knowing what happened to her son, but her daughter Jane (Anna Martin) gives her a chance to find out where he is after meeting Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a freshly unemployed political correspondent formerly with the BBC. Stock-full with all of the jaded journalist traits (world weariness, an above-it-all air and disdain for fluff stories), Martin initially rejects Jane’s proposal that he investigate Philomena’s past but reconsiders when he realizes his short-term employment prospects are exceedingly slim.
It is during the “getting-to-know-you” phase of the film where “Philomena” makes its greatest impact. In addition to inhabiting characters that are vastly different philosophically, Dench and Coogan’s acting styles come from different worlds all together and in the wrong hands could come across feeling patently disingenuous.
Working with a screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope (adapted from the Sixsmith’s novel), director Stephen Frears does a superb job of balancing the important with the mundane, the serious with the comedic and the intellectual with the emotional. The further the movie progresses the less it feels like a movie and more like a thriller-flavored documentary. It’s a tough balancing act and one that few directors could pull off without appearing to try too hard. Although the content is way different, it’s equally as impressive to what Frears did with “High Fidelity.”
It helps Frears that Coogan and Pope’s screenplay takes big chances with the reveals. A discovery that would generally come at the end of any other like-minded mystery appears here at the halfway point but instead of providing a sense of premature closure, opens up a door into unexpected and unexplored narrative possibilities.
It won’t spoil anything to let you know that the film is based on real events and, in the minds of most, what takes place would be far too strange for fiction. No one could make this story up out of whole cloth and have it remain believable. While some might argue otherwise, “Philomena” paints an accurate picture of the Catholic Church in the 1950s in an extremely negative light — and it never apologizes for its stance. It doesn’t pass judgment but neither does it gloss over or sugar-coat the facts.
The real Martin Sixsmith didn’t want to get involved with what happened to Philomena Lee in the late 2000s because he thought it was a lowly “human interest” story. He changed his tune when he figured out it was actually a transfixing tale of human dignity and nothing resembling fluff. This is the kind of story every dedicated journalist dreams of coming across and usually never finds, but only fully realizes when it’s in their rearview mirror. (The Weinstein Company)