Venice Film Review: ‘Philomena’

Philomena Review

The Weinstein Co. should have no trouble positioning Stephen Frears' latest as a sleeper success.

A howl of anti-clerical outrage wrapped in a tea cozy, “Philomena” applies amusing banter and a sheen of good taste to the real-life quest of Philomena Lee, an Irishwoman who spent decades searching for the out-of-wedlock son taken from her by Catholic nuns and sold into adoption overseas. Smoothly tooled as an odd-couple vehicle for Judi Dench in the title role and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the British journalist who brought Lee’s story to international attention, this smug but effective middlebrow crowdpleaser boasts a sharper set of dentures than most films of its type, shrewdly mining its material for laughs and righteous anger as well as tears. With an awards push for Dench likely in the works, the Weinstein Co. should have no trouble positioning director Stephen Frears’ latest as a sleeper success, certain to rouse audiences not put off by its genteel calculation.

In adapting Sixsmith’s 2009 book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope have essentially merged a culture-clash comedy with “The Magdalene Sisters,” Peter Mullan’s searing 2002 drama about the Irish Catholic asylums where thousands of “fallen” women were sent and punished for their sexual promiscuity. The Roscrea convent where Lee gave birth in 1952 appears to have been a marginally less inhumane place, allowing the teenage mother (played in flashbacks by an excellent Sophie Kennedy Clark) to see her son, Anthony, for an hour each day in between back-breaking laundry shifts. But in 1955, the boy was taken away and adopted by a wealthy American family, never to be seen again by his birth mother even though she spent decades searching for him.

In the script’s tidier version of events, Philomena (Dench) doesn’t really begin her search for Anthony until the early 2000s, when she finds an unlikely ally in Martin (Coogan), an ex-BBC correspondent and recently ousted civil servant trying to get back into the journalism game via the mildly humiliating route of writing a human-interest piece. After the nuns at the Roscrea convent prove singularly unhelpful, politely but firmly reminding Philomena that she signed away all claims to the child, she and Martin follow a lead to Washington, D.C., hoping to find Anthony and re-establish contact.

It’s an undeniable whopper of a yarn and, coming after a string of middling efforts from Frears, easily the director’s most compulsively watchable picture since “The Queen.” It hardly gives away the story’s outcome (by now of course a matter of public knowledge) to note that Martin and Philomena’s journey winds up leading them, after a fashion, back to the Church’s doorstep, setting the stage for an emotionally satisfying confrontation with the institutional forces of judgment, repression and hysteria responsible for exploiting countless mothers and their long-lost children.

Indeed, “Philomena’s” slap in the face of religious authority is stinging enough that it could draw ire from conservative groups and publications that care to take an interest, which should only boost its commercial profile. (Along similar political lines, Martin’s investigation even allows for a not-irrelevant swipe at the Reagan administration’s AIDS policy.) These differences of culture, values and temperament are not incidental to the film’s pleasures; they are in fact its primary narrative engine, grounded in the tension between two improbably matched protagonists. Martin, the cynical, world-weary atheist who rudely questions everyone and everything, could scarcely be more different from Philomena, the sweet-tempered Irish biddy who still clings to her faith in God and humanity.

And while Philomena may monopolize the title, the film, with its slick, mocking tone and faintly condescending aftertaste, is ultimately far more on Martin’s side. Much of the humor here comes at the expense of Philomena’s naivete, excessive grandmotherly kindness and lack of worldly sophistication, and while the character is certainly fair game, after a while it’s hard not to wonder if the writers are simply scoring points off her. Hearing Philomena prattle on and on about the romance novel she can’t put down is genuinely amusing the first time; having her suggest they stay in their hotel and watch “Big Momma’s House” on-demand taxes plausibility and patience.

The patronizing sensibility at work even has a diminishing effect on Dench’s otherwise fine, dignified performance; appearing not very bright remains an obstacle that this fiercely intelligent actress only occasionally surmounts. Nonetheless, she invests this twinkly-eyed paragon of virtue with real warmth and tenderness without overdoing the sentimentality, and she can be surprisingly articulate when she needs to be, often letting Martin know exactly what she thinks of his sour worldview. Dench and the script achieve their finest moments when Philomena, for all her rectitude, expresses a surprisingly open-minded view of sexuality, rooted in her still-fond memories of the teenage fling that led to Anthony’s conception in the first place.

The two leads make decent sparring partners and better allies, and Coogan is especially good whenever Martin’s impatient manner tilts into genuine moral indignation. Ace d.p. Robbie Ryan’s HD lensing brings an attractive polish to the D.C. and London locations, but the film’s real formal coup lies in the flashbacks to 1950s Roscrea, distinctively shot on Super 16 and evoking the grainy look of an earlier era. Alexandre Desplat’s churning score is expectedly overactive.

Venice Film Review: 'Philomena'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Aug. 31, 2013. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations; London Film Festival — Gala Presentations.) Running time: 97 MIN.

Production

(U.K.) A Weinstein Co. (in U.S.) release of a Pathe, BBC Films and BFI presentation, with the participation of Canal Plus and Cine Plus, of a Baby Cow/Magnolia Mae production. (International sales: Pathe Intl., London.) Produced by Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward. Executive producers, Henry Normal, Christine Langan, Cameron McCracken, Francois Ivernel, Carolyn Marks Blackwood.

Crew

Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay, Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, based on the book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" by Martin Sixsmith. Camera (color, Super 8/Super 16/S-VHS/Alexa digital), Robbie Ryan; editor, Valerio Bonelli; music, Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Alan MacDonald; supervising art director, Rod McLean; art director, Sarah Stuart; set decorator, Barbara Herman Skelding; costume designer, Consolata Boyle; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Lindsay; supervising sound editor, Oliver Tarney; re-recording mixers, Chris Burdon, Doug Cooper; special effects supervisor, Manex Efrem; visual effects supervisor, Adam Gascoyne; visual effects, Union Visual Effects; assistant director, Deborah Saban; casting, Leo Davis, Lissy Holm.

With

Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Barbara Jefford, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mare Winningham, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Peter Hermann, Ruth McCabe.

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  1. Fawn says:

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  2. mary says:

    Curious that the article says “sold ….abroad” talking about the baby given in adoption of Philomena. The writer of this article (and/or the screenwriter)must be ignorant in the subject of how young mothers with the help or through catholic church/ orphanages had the children adopted. No money is part of the transaction. My parents as practicing-catholic attorneys at free of charge helped decades a go take care of national and international adoptions between young catholic mothers/orphans at catholic orphanages/boarding schools and catholic families. In which I assisted as a young attorney myself then.

    The very sad part is that in previous decades the parents were the first ones totake their daughters to catholic church institutions where they could stay while they were pregnant and afterwards if they whished prefwrably and to give their children for adoption and in the worst case scenario to doctors that would against the will of the young women practice and abortion. A personal friend of mine was one of this cases, fortunately she ran away and was taken by a catholic shelter for unwed mothers and had her baby and kept it but took many years for her father to forgive her. There are many many catholic shelters for unwed pregnant women or mothers that have done such great work. Should also make a movie about that.

  3. Pat Sutton says:

    The parents of ‘fallen girls’ should be fiercely condemned in books and films written and made about them; they played a large role in keeping institutions open by discarding their daughters. Hypocrisy was the order of the day in Ireland and to a certain extent in England where there were many Homes for Unmarried Mothers. I spent several months in one of these homes but where else could I and many of us have gone?

  4. Very quickly this website will be famous amid all blog visitors, due to it’s fastidious articles or reviews

  5. Watching, albeit briefing, filming of Philomena in rural Maryland revealed director, cast and crew who embraced the import of the subject matter yet knew that humor had to play a part in the telling!
    Cheers to Philomena!

  6. katie says:

    Sounds like yet another movie filmed as an excuse for more Catholic bashing. Doesn’t Hollywood ever get tired of it. Can’t wait to miss it.

  7. GKN says:

    As the WASP majority love Catholic-bashing, I doubt it will draw much ire. There are certainly more controversial subjects Frears could have chosen, but I’m still looking forward to this.

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