A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman’s search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.
Year 2, Film #65
THE REVIEW: The Academy Awards are in just over a week and there’s still a handful of Best Picture nominees that I still have yet to see. One of them is Philomena which is also nominated for Best Actress (Judi Dench) and Best Adapted Screenplay. This is an incredible story — one that will certainly tug at your heartstrings — and also an extremely funny film. That being said, while Philomena deserves its Best Picture nomination, it isn’t a strong contender for the title.
For Best Actress though, it will be tough to beat Judi Dench. Of the other nominees, Cate Blanchett probably has the best chance of winning for her role in Blue Jasmine (she won the Screen Actors Guild award for it) but I haven’t seen that film yet. However, Dench’s portrayal of Philomena Lee is near-perfect. In her sixties, Philomena has a very distinct personality and one that is very endearing. She’s one of those people who loves to tell stories and gets along with everyone. Wherever she goes, whether it’s the cafe she meets Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) at, the convent where she gave birth to her son, or especially in Washington D.C. when Philomena and Martin expand their investigation for her son. A lot of the humor in the film comes through Philomena’s personality. It’s very cute to see this sixty year-old lady get so excited that there’s a chocolate on her pillow in the hotel room and that there’s a whole host of foods available for breakfast downstairs. But this does much more for the film than just provide a few laughs; it also heavily impacts the story.
Martin is the journalist who is approached by Philomena’s daughter to write her story. As Martin points out many times throughout the film, it is a human interest story which he says (and I’m paraphrasing here) are popular because the people who read them are easily influenced. I’ll get to the downside of a human interest story in a bit, but first the upside. The reason stories like these are so appealing is because they are. Philomena has kept her secret for fifty years. Her secret is that she had a son as a teenager and the nuns at the convent where she was living forced her to give it up for adoption and ever since she’s been trying to find him again. That’s the gist which you can get from the trailer and even a plot summary like the one above. What you discover after watching the film (or reading the article on which it is based) is even more shocking and gripping than that. This isn’t a tear-jerker of a film; the emotions you’ll feel aren’t that extreme. But you do get a strong sense of what exactly Philomena, or any other mother who is possibly in this situation, went through.
But again, this is a human interest story. An inherent problem in a film like this is that it relies too heavily on exposition and that’s exactly what Philomena does. Whereas another comedy or drama would leave things up to the viewer’s imagination, let them discover things on their own and make inferences as to what’s happening, Philomena does a lot of telling. In many ways the film feels like we’re listening to the article being read like a book-on-tape (an antiquated analogy, but quite apt I feel). As I mentioned, the story itself is wonderful and is interesting from start to finish, but being told every single detail along the way takes some of the fun and intrigue out of it. I’d much rather watch things unfold rather than hear them. A great example in the film where they did this well was in Washington D.C. when Martin receives a newspaper clipping that turns out to be a major clue. No talking during that scene, just reaction shots of Martin looking at a computer screen, Philomena coming over to the table, and her reactions to Martin. Beautifully constructed and a very powerful reveal, just not done enough throughout the film.
Philomena is a very appealing and entertaining film. While young kids might find it boring because they won’t appreciate the humor or really connect with the story, everyone else will enjoy it. Judi Dench does an absolutely phenomenal job at bringing the character of Philomena Lee to screen and helps us to connect with the events that unfold. Parts of the film feel too much like a direct reading of the article on which it is based, but as a whole, Philomena does a great job a telling such an incredible and, in many ways, shocking tale of a mother trying to find her son. Not quite good enough to win Best Picture, but certainly deserving of the nomination and well worth a watch at some point.
THE RATING: 4 out of 5