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November 13, 2013

Philomena (2013)
Director: Stephen Frears
Actors: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench, Michelle Fairley

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Synopsis: Jaded journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), embarks on a ‘human interest’ story regarding ex-Magdalene girl, Philomena (Judi Dench), who wants to track down the son she had to give up for adoption some fifty years before.

Review: This is a very mainstream, proficient telling of a highly incendiary story, and in a way that’s admissible, because the tale is so inherently emotional with its subject matter, all you need is a competent director and a couple of crack actors to wheedle that trajectory out.

On a personal level, I almost wish the film had been a little darker and more angry. It’s such a scandalous, sad and extremely poignant tale, but I feel director Stephen Frears keeps on pulling that rage back, so as not to smother the overall feelgood, ‘odd couple’, lighter aspirations of the scenario. In particular, the spiky theological edge between the characters is continually washed over. It’s a film that obviously bases its drama on the disgusting actions of the Catholic church, but everytime Sixsmith probes at and deconstructs Philomena’s dogma and flawed compassion for her Sisters, the script throws in a cheap jibe at Sixsmith’s expense to balance out the equilibrium between the two protagonists, and so as not to let Philomena’s character become too docile and unsympathetic.

The strength of the film is in its two stellar lead performances. Steve Coogan absolutely owns the role of the world-weary, borderline classist, but ultimately principled journalist, and Judi Dench excels even her masterclass in the recent Notes on a Scandal for what must surely be a ‘shoe-in’ for next year’s Best Actress gong at all the awards ceremonies. Each time I watch one of the ‘great’ contemporary Anglophone actresses – Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet – I’m always aware that I’m watching a ‘performance’, but with Judi Dench, she gracefully manages to find the truth behind the eyes and mannerisms, whether she’s playing a grand dame, a priggish school matriarch, or the doughty Irish pensioner she so convincingly essays here. (November 2013)

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