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Philomena: Queen Judi Approximately

by Ethan Alter November 22, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Philomena</i>: Queen Judi Approximately

As if we needed one, Philomena gives us all yet another reason to praise Judi Dench, the Grand Dame of contemporary British cinema and an actress capable of elevating even the most predictable material (see last year's geriatric hit, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). Based on a bestselling non-fiction book that chronicles a fascinating, troubling piece of recent Irish history, Philomena is far from predictable, at least in terms of its narrative. Tonally, however, the film strives a little too hard to fit into the British tradition of tearjerkers that tackle difficult material with a light touch -- think movies like Made in Dagenham, Marigold Hotel or Quartet. These films seek to explore serious emotional terrain, but can't resist underlying every dramatic beat with a bit of comedy lest the audience's collective stiff upper lip starts quivering too much.

Philomena's generic gags are particularly surprising as they flow from the pen of Dench's co-star and the movie's co-writer, Steve Coogan, the brittle, bitter British comic actor whose best work (including his Alan Partridge persona, Hamlet 2 and the two mockumentaries he's made with Michael Winterbottom, Tristram Shandy and The Trip) tests the audience's tolerance for pompous gits and acerbic humor. This time around, Coogan is making a clear bid for mainstream acceptance, so he dials down the sarcasm in favor of kinder, gentler comedy -- he genuinely wants to please the audience rather than push them away.

Then again, considering the delicate subject matter involved, I'm not sure that being mean would have been the right way to go. Philomena tells the story of Philomena Lee (Dench), an elderly Irish retiree who has been carrying around a soul-searing secret for some five decades. As a young woman, she was one of the Magdalene Sisters -- women who for indiscretions of a sexual nature (generally getting pregnant out of wedlock) were abandoned by their families in Catholic Church-operated institutions that were essentially workhouses, where they toiled long hours for no pay and suffered crippling emotional and physical abuse at the hands of the nuns. Worse still, they were forced to surrender any parental claims to their children to the institution, which in turn sold numerous infants into adoption, often from overseas. That's what happened to Philomena, whose last sight of her beloved son, Anthony, was him staring out the back window of his adoptive parents' car spiriting him off to his new life.

Eventually released from her life of indentured servitude, Philomena married and had another child, but still carried that devastating memory with her, finally sharing it with her grown daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell-Martin) 50 years later. Jane promptly brings the tale to Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) a recently sacked government official looking to get back into the journalism game where he started his once-meteoric rise. A cynic by nature, Martin agrees to help Philomena learn what happened to Anthony, mainly so he can package it as the kind of human interest story that will delight editors. But his subsequent continent-spanning journey with this elderly optimist -- who refuses to say a mean word about anybody, including the nuns who stole her child from her -- predictably sands away his rough edges and challenges his own (lack of) faith, not necessarily in a higher power, but rather the power of human kindness.

The odd-couple road movie structure of Philomena allows Coogan and his co-writer Jeff Pope to traffic in a lot of the good-natured fish-out-of-water ribbing that made Marigold Hotel such a hit with its target audience (at one point Philomena professes her amazement at a luxury hotel's breakfast buffet and omelet bar). The age difference between the stars also allows for plenty of generation gap gags, like Martin rolling her eyes at his traveling partners taste in literature and movies (she favors romance novels and Big Momma's House). Truth be told, this stuff is pretty hokey, as are the melodramatic visual touches that director Stephen Frears (a veteran of this kind of refined comedy-laced drama) layers on top of the film, though heart-tugging music cues, as well as manipulative (and, as my tear ducts would admit, mostly effective) flashbacks.

But that's where Dench's almost effortless brilliance comes into play, along with the cumulative emotional power and genuine surprise inherent in the story being told. The actress (whose Oscar nomination is all but assured) plays every half-overripe dramatic beat and every half-funny joke with nothing less than total conviction and the level of care and commitment she brings to the role invests even the most reluctant viewers in her character's journey. Philomena's tale is truly extraordinary -- a great injustice that, while never righted, does come to a graceful conclusion (for a harsher, but overall better film about the experiences of Magdalene women like Philomena Lee, be sure to track down Peter Mullan's terrific 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters) -- and the strength of the script lies in the way it parcels out each new revelation about both her own life and the life her son went onto experience. Despite typecasting himself as the curmudgeonly cynic, Coogan can't quite keep up with his co-star, particularly in the more dramatic scenes where he has a tendency to confuse Serious Acting with Talking Louder. But that almost doesn't matter, as the audience has primarily come to watch The Judi Dench Show. And, as usual, it's grand.

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