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Posted by martinteller on December 31, 2013

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), having just been railroaded out of his high-profile civil service career, wants to return to his journalistic roots.  He comes across the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an elderly woman who had been coerced by nuns into giving up her 3-year-old illegitimate son.  A devout Catholic ashamed of her sin, she kept this child a secret for 50 years, but has always wanted to know what happened to him, to reconnect with him.  After being stonewalled at the convent, barroom gossip points them towards America, where they go in search of “Anthony”.

I don’t know how “true” this telling is.  For one thing, Wikipedia tells me that a major character who figures prominently in the film’s climax had actually died 9 years before Sixsmith and Lee began their search.  There are also moments that feel a little too easy.  But one must allow for a little dramatic license in these cases… after all, it’s only “based on” a true story, not a documentary.  And as a story, it has a very satisfying flow to it, with an unexpected revelation in the middle that leads the movie down other paths.  Trying not to spoil anything here, but I think I’m safe saying that the search for Philomena’s son also becomes a questioning of her belief in the Catholic church and its institutions.

The film has a very even-handed approach to religion.  Just when you think it might be pushing a certain agenda, it introduces another viewpoint.  Sixsmith rails against religion but Lee counters him nicely.  In the end, the movie isn’t criticizing religion, or even Catholicism specifically, just certain practices that were allowed to go on under its name.  While I’ve seen more nuanced approaches to the subject, this is still fairly complex in its handling.  The two leads both go through transformations (Lee’s perhaps a bit more convincing and meaningful than Sixsmith’s).

There’s also an even-handedness in its portrayal of Philomena and Martin.  I think the characterization of Philomena borders on condescension at times, having a number of laughs at her expense regarding her “low-class” sensibilities.  But this is mitigated to a degree not only by her moments of wisdom and profound grace, but also by poking at Sixsmith’s pretensions.  As with the religious angle, you will probably leave with the same views you came in with regarding which character is more flawed, but I think ultimately the film is fair to both of them.  One character aspect I particularly appreciated is that Philomena is not entirely a saintly figure, concerned only with appreciating her son’s life and achievements.  There’s a bit of a selfish motive as well, wanting anxiously to be remembered by him.  She wants to know if he ever spoke about her.  That’s a very human quality, and it made me warm to her more.

Stephen Frears is a stellar craftsman, as seen particularly in The Grifters and Dirty Pretty Things.  This film sports some lovely, understated cinematography and score, setting a reflective mood.  I enjoyed the use of flashbacks that toyed with the viewer’s sense of character perspective.  Coogan and Dench are both quite compelling… Dench especially, in a mode outside of her usual aristocratic or powerful role.  There are some good laughs and a couple of getting-dusty-in-here moments.  An all-around fine movie.  Rating: Very Good (83)


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