Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: Philomena

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Stephen Frears' "Philomena" is the type of film that many would likely believe, upon learning of its true story and seeing its cast and distributor, is an attempt at Oscar bait. And I'd certainly not be shocked if Judi Dench nabs her umpteenth nomination for her role as the film's titular character.

However, the film is much more subtle than you'd might expect. Frears is a director that has a unique talent at subverting expectations when handling specific subject matter. His 2006 Oscar favorite "The Queen" may have appeared to have been one of those annual cinematic odes to aristocracy of which - at least, some - audiences never seem to tire. But rather than being stuffy, that film was a surprisingly moving film about a leader forced to change with the times.

"Philomena" is no different. Yes, it's the story of a cynical down-on-his-luck journalist (Steve Coogan, droll as ever) who, in an attempt to revive his career, finds himself writing a human interest story on a sweet old Irish lass (Dench, pretty terrific here) whose child was torn away from her in her youth by a group of sadistic nuns and for whom she has been searching her entire life.

And, yes, the film tugs at the heart strings, but it earns its emotions. For starters, Dench plays her character as the sort of saintly figure you might expect from this type of story. Despite her mistreatment by the sisters at the convent where she lived as a young woman, she does not bear any grudges and she looks upon everyone she experiences during her travels with a naively sweet manner. At the same time, she's no fool and there is a truly funny scene during which Philomena describes a sexual liaison to a shocked Coogan and, much later, another in which she seems nonplussed about some discoveries she makes about her son during the pair's journey to find him.

So, on the one hand, "Philomena" treads the ground you'd expect it to but, at the same time, Frears and company deftly handle the material in ways that might surprise you. As I've said time and time again, what a movie is about is typically less significant than how the filmmakers go about telling the story. I was impressed both by the film's sly sense of humor about its subject matter as well as its moving - but not sentimental - treatment of Philomena's often tragic story. This is a very enjoyable, well made and thoughtful character study.

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