Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Philomena

Directed by: Stephen Frears

Produced by: Gabrielle Tan
Steve Coogan
Tracey Seaward

Screenplay by: Steve Coogan
Jeff Pope

Based on: The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith

Starring: Judi Dench
Steve Coogan
Sophie Kennedy Clark

Music by: Alexandre Desplat

Cinematography by: Robbie Ryan

Editing by: Valerio Bonelli

Studio(s): Pathe
BBC Films
British Film Institute
Baby Cow Productions
Magnolia Mae Films

Distributed by: The Weinstein Company

Release date(s): August 31, 2013 (Italy, Venice Film Festival)
November 1, 2013 (United Kingdom)
November 27, 2013 (United States)

Running time: 95 minutes

Country(s): United Kingdom
United States

Language: English

Production budget: (N/A)

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $24, 569, 710

Rightio, another day, another review. These introductions are getting harder every day because, although I'm in the habit of occasionally using florid language, I do not like beating around the bush, which is what most of these intros consist of anyway! This week should be interesting, as I'll be getting into the spirit of Christmas (which really should be interesting, given my reputation as a notorious Scrooge) by dressing up as Santa Claus later in the week and then the next I'll going to see Black Sabbath at the Odyssey Arena. Surrounded by my work colleagues and moshing like a mofo in the workplace to one of the greatest bands of all time should be quite the experience. So, for all the latest and greatest in the movies, with the more than occasional update of the trivial nature, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is Philomena, based on the book The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, which in turn was based on the true events of a mother's fifty-year-long search for her son. A big part in getting the film made was Steve Coogan, who has credits on the picture as an actor, producer and screenwriter (he and Jeff Pope won Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival), and it has been nice to see Coogan has such a good year, with What Maisie Knew, The Look Of Love and Alan Partidge: Alpha Papa also under his belt this year, and has got Stephen Frears on board in the director's chair. The film also stars the mighty Judi Dench, who turns seventy-nine today, so Happy Birthday Dame Judi. For anyone who doesn't know already, I'm a big fan of Judi Dench, not just for her work as M in the James Bond films (for which she won Best Supporting Actress from my good self last year), but for her eclectic back catalogue as an actress on film and on stage for the Royal Shakespeare and Nation Theatre companies. To bring things back to the ground, Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist who has just lost his job as a Labour government advisor, and is in a stage of transition, taking up running and contemplating writing a book on Russian history. An editor offers him a job in writing human interest pieces, something which he scorns as sob stories, and he meets the daughter of Philomena Lee, played by Judi Dench, who reveals that her mother confided that she had a son fifty years earlier in Ireland, but because the child was born out of wedlock she was forced into a convent and had to give the child up for adoption. So, the proverbial stage is set for a journey to find the mystery son of the titular Philomena. Got it? Good!

So, starting out, it's obvious from the marketing of the film that this is very much a buddy film of sorts, the two different people brought together in a common cause. On the acting front, both Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are on top form. Dench, who has made a name in film for playing these ice queen characters like M, Queen Elizabeth and her terrifying Barbara Covett in Notes On A Scandal, clearly relishes the opportunity to play a part like Philomena Lee. On the surface, she's an enthusiastic, bubbly, sweet and good-humoured little lady, but Dench also brings to Philomena a genuine wisdom, intelligence and conviction, so that we find she is indeed a strong woman. There is also something to be said about Dench being just the right age to play the part, akin to the way Clint Eastwood waiting to age into the role of William Munny in Unforgiven. Many of my personal favourite moments in the film were shots of Dench's wonderfully expressive features in closeup. Full of subtlety and legitimate development, this is world class acting. Also, Sophie Kennedy Clark is impressive in the part of the young Philomena. As Dench largely narrates these flashbacks, much of what Clark does involves the physical conveyance of Philomena's emotions, and this she does splendidly, priming herself as an actress to look out for. In this regard, Steve Coogan should not be overlooked. His Martin Sixsmith is at times an incorrigible cynic, but that does not change the fact that portrays him as a three-dimensional human being, as opposed to a simple cypher for the audience. While he has a lot of good sense and wits about him, he also has his flaws and has a tendency to let them get the better of him at times. Coogan conveys these different aspects to the character all rather well. As mentioned, Coogan has credits in three different roles on the film, and he should be praised in good measure for all. The screenplay by he and Jeff Pope, while it has an issue or two (which I'll get to in due course), is bold and daring in a number of ways. For starters, although this is obviously true to the real story, there is a key revelation in the film that completely takes you by surprise. I'll say no more about that, because it'd spoil a great part in the movie, but from this point the picture evolves above and beyond the typical ABC's of this kind of picture. Instead of making this a traditional buddy comedy, weepie or heartwarming tale, the real question asked in the film is regarding the nature of faith. The juxtaposing of Philomena, a devoutly religious woman who still finds capacity for warmth, forgiveness and compassion despite horrendous things having happened to her, and Martin, a staunchly atheist man who constantly harangues the elderly lady as to why she still believes in God after all these years, is one of the most engaging theological debates put to screen in recent memory. Also praiseworthy is the original score by Alexandre Desplat. I have an interesting relationship with Desplat, as for a few years I was critical of much of his output, primarily because of his scores being utilised in a foreground manner that I often found intrusive to the film(s), but since The Tree Of Life, I've found myself engaging with his work. His work on Philomena is something of a serenity, floating about in the wind like that feather in Forrest Gump, a sort-of aural metaphor for us landing in the midst of this story. I've become convinced that Desplat is of that fine tradition of classical film composers like Max Steiner and Franz Waxman and on Philomena he continues along that vein. Finally, although I would have thought it interesting to see Coogan make a stab at directing here, Stephen Frears, a fine filmmaker with a proven track record for making strong character dramas, was an appropriate director to bring on board. 

Now, while I'm sure you've gathered that I rather liked Philomena, it does have a number of issues that deny it from being a truly great movie. As I mentioned, though the script has praiseworthy qualities, there are also cons that come with it. I know that it has been a common criticism levelled at the film, but the two opposing components of drama and comedy do not quite gel, either as one (dramedy) or two parallel entities, and it's a sentiment I share. This does at times lead to some rather awkward moments in which it's not exactly a case of the audience knowing how to interpret a piece of dialogue, but rather that the dialogue itself reads better on paper and onscreen comes across stilted. Philomena's one of those movies that's hard to negatively criticise, in that the problems emerge more from a subjective standpoint. It's an overall rather solid movie, but you do get the impression that much of what unfolds, no matter how extraordinary a true story it is, has been done before in various incarnations. When I ponder on various masterpieces I have seen over the years, even this year (The Act Of Killing, Rush, Gravity), I think of what they bring to the table that's unique to them, and in the case of Philomena, while it has an interesting theological debate, it isn't enough to cut it from the creme de la creme.

So, Philomena has a couple of issues with the script and although it's a purely personal thing, I find that there just isn't enough to make it run with the very best of them. Subjective matters aside though, I still think that Philomena is a great movie. It has terrific lead performances from Judi Dench (who I hope bags an Oscar nom) and Steve Coogan, who also did a fine job of shepherding this production. Alexandre Desplat's serene score is also fine, and much as I think Coogan could have made a stab from the director's chair, Stephen Frears was an appropriate choice for the project. With an interesting theological debate in tow and a genuinely unexpected turn midway through the film, there's a lot of good things going with the ultimately heart-warming Philomena.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.0/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Bangin' (listening to Kavinsky's OutRun.

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