Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: Philomena

Rates:  *  *  *

In mid twentieth century Ireland, a terrible fate awaited unlucky Catholic girls who found themselves unmarried and knocked up. Disowned by their conservative families, they were effectively imprisoned in convents, forced to work at grueling manual labour while their infants were put up for adoption. Often the parents would tell friends and family that the girl had died.

Such was the fate of Philomena Lee (well played in her youth by Sophie Kennedy Clarke), whose one night stand eventually leads her to disgrace and captivity in one of these cruel institutions (territory which has been covered by the movies before, most notably 2002’s harrowing The Magdalene Sisters). At age three, her son is adopted away and she is forced to work four more years scrubbing sheets in a hellish laundry before being sent on her way to start over.

The story picks up many years later when Philomena, now elderly (and played by Judy Dench), is trying to find her missing son. She has been stymied by the church – they tell her all their adoption records have been destroyed in a fire – and the local Government seems disinterested. Philomena’s daughter then meets the recently sacked (and somewhat disgraced) spin doctor and former journalist Mark Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) and tries to get him engaged in her mother’s plight. Initially dismissive (Sixsmith tells her that human interest stories are for cretins), his lack of career options make him reconsider and the promise of an expense account from a magazine editor make him positively enthusiastic.

Mark is soon on the case, the trail leading Philomena and Mark from rural Ireland to America and some gentle road movie adventure.

Steve Coogan produced and co-scripted this adaptation of the real life Mark Sixsmith’s 2009 non-fiction book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and he clearly saw in the author a plum role for himself. And Coogan is fine, in an uncharacteristically subdued role, nicely capturing the prickly superiority, but underlying decency, of this frustrated career-man.

But Coogan’s underplaying, while mostly effective, also stands as an indicator of what I found unsatisfying about this movie. It’s a very… restrained piece. Emotions are largely kept in check, people’s responses are modulated, voices are rarely raised. As one of the test pilots wives put it in The Right Stuff, ‘Everyone’s always maintaining an even strain.’

The character of Philomena is even more problematic. As well as keeping her emotions largely out of sight, save for the odd tear, there’s something inconsistent about the way she’s been written. At times she’s a verbose chatterbox, playing to stereotypes for both the Irish and the elderly, and at others she offers mostly silence pierced with an occasional pointed remark. Similarly, she’s at one moment depicted as so unworldly that a modern five star hotel makes her giddy (Chocolates! Buffet breakfast! Pillows!) and in the next as so sophisticated that she doesn’t turn a hair talking sexuality with complete strangers.

Dench’s performance is solid, and a welcome change from the iron lady she’s played in the Bond films lately, but I couldn’t help but wonder if she was the right person for this part. Her Irish accent comes and goes somewhat, and there is little chemistry between her and Coogan, a serious problem in an odd-couple movie like this one.

Her story ark also steadfastly refuses to give the audience an emotional payoff.

Despite all the terrible things that were done to her, Philomena never questions her faith, nor shows much sign that she feels anger, or even frustration, towards the nuns and the church. Just the opposite, in fact, as she chastises Sixsmith for getting angry on her behalf. Even when, at the end of the movie,  she is confronted with a nun who not only tormented her when she was younger, but also deliberately kept her grown up son from finding her before he died, she just turns away and moves on, with barely a word of recrimination.

While I imagine that this ending is true to the source material (they surely would've used a more rousing one if it were available), it does give the film a rather muted conclusion. Which is, I suppose, in keeping with the overall tone.

Philomena is an inoffensive drama with good intentions and good people involved. It is well made and gives earnest attention to a very serious subject. But it’s hard not to feel that more could have been made from the remarkable personal journey the central character experienced. By keeping the tone so resolutely low key, the writers and director (British veteran Stephen Frears) make this story less engaging than it could have been, with an equal reduction in the films emotional impact.

Solid but disappointing, overall.  

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