Directed by Stephen Frears
Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, from the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” by Martin Sixsmith
Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan
In 1950s Ireland, a young unmarried Catholic girl, Philomena, finds herself pregnant and abandoned to a convent, where the nun’s basically force her to give her son up for adoption. But not only does she never see him again, she is given no information on his whereabouts are anything of the sort.
He may as well be dead.
Out of a sense of shame and guilt, Philomena (played as an old woman by Dench) hides the truth about the boy from her later husband and family for fifty years, before she eventually confesses the secret to her daughter. The daughter manages to hook her up with a journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), who agrees to help track down the son Philomena never knew.
What To Say?
Philomena is the second film in this series of late starring Judi Dench – before this was the movie Iris. In that movie she played another real person – Iris Murdoch in that one, Philomena Lee in this one. As Iris, Dench played the free-spirited novelist later in her life, as she quickly loses her faculties, and eventually her life, to dementia. It was an entirely heartbreaking role, touched over with the anger of a woman who knows she’s losing herself to something she cannot hope to stop, combined with the anger that comes with the confusion suddenly invading the lives of a person suffering dementia.
Her role here, as Philomena, is quite different. Rather than one filled with anger at what’s happened to her, here it is shame and guilt – shame at having let her son be adopted away from her, and guilt at the thought this was God’s punishment for her sins. Where Iris was certainly a showier role – anger is much more cinematic than guilt – Philomena is the tougher role because quiet, small performances make an actors ability at playing subtle a vital importance. It will truly separate the posers from the professionals.
But even though the two roles are different in many ways, Dench is quite good at both of them. Over the course of these projects – The Best Picture Project and The Also-Rans Project – it’s become apparent to me that an actor’s greatest asset is his/her magnetism. Ability to play scenes is one thing – that can be taught. But magnetism is something you have or don’t. You are either commanding, or you’re not. It’s that ability to, even when playing small and quiet and non-descript, draw the audiences attention and makes them sit up and go, Hello, what’s going on there? If you’ve got that, you’re already half-way to giving a successful performance.
Fortunately, Dench is commanding, which is crucial, because while Philomena is so retiring and willing to withdraw, it is Dench’s magnetism and natural charm that keeps us from throwing up our hands and letting her disappear. It draws you in. Certainly many actors are capable of something similar, but it’s a rare actress like Dench to truly marshal it in service of a wide variety of roles. After all, this is not the steely Queen she played in Shakespeare In Love, who was so certain and truly commanding. No, this is a shy woman, torn in multiple directions by her guilt and shame, but all the while grateful for her faith and the people who’ve helped her.
As important is Coogan. After all, this film is two-hander and while some others might drift in and out of the story for a few lines here or there, Dench and Coogan are the show.
Honestly, while Dench’s role is demanding, Coogan’s is the more thankless. But also, the most honest. He plays Ron Sixsmith, a one-time journalist, turned government spokesperson, who was eventually fired for having something he said misconstrued, forcing him to contemplate returning to his prior work. When the story of Philomena comes to him, he’s in a bit of a desperate and depressed moment and even though he has a hard time initially getting hooked into her story – emotionally – he agrees to follow it because he needs the work and needs something to occupy him again. In this way, his intentions are not entirely pure and Coogan plays that well. He has to be slimy, while seeming caring. He has to be manipulative not only of Philomena, so as to keep the story going, but of others, so as to be able to have a story. He has to tread the fine line between helping Philomena and helping himself. Yes, by the end he has a redemption arc and pushes past his cynicism, and while that can be a bit by-the-numbers, Coogan plays it well.
That all said, as a movie, there honestly is not a lot happening here. At about 95 minutes long there really isn’t much plot, and what plot there is gets resolved surprisingly early. The investigation into the fate of the boy is almost perfunctory and easy – when you think about it, they really locate him in no time at all, setting up a rather long, but satisfying, cathartic denouement. Which just emphasizes that the plot didn’t matter much, more important was how the people involved come to terms with themselves, and with their histories. In this way, the movie gives itself over to the interplay between Coogan and Dench, which is low-key, but genuinely engrossing.
Aside from the story of the movie itself, which is amazing, the movie plays quite interestingly with the character of Martin Sixsmith. Basically, the movie makes him something of a cynical asshole. Now, I don’t know how Sixsmith represented himself in the book he wrote about these events, which this movie is based upon and a basically-true story, but it’s quietly a revolutionary thing to allow the man that helped Philomena to be presented in a warts-and-all kind of way. To show him as the asshole. If the ‘redemption’ he gets at the end of the film feels a bit trite, the fact that he’s otherwise played as a flawed human is quite amazing.
Better Than Best?
Best Picture 2013 was 12 Years A Slave, a monumental film, and surely one of the greatest of all time. On those bona fides alone, there is no way Philomena could supplant it.
And yet, I was very delightfully surprised by Philomena. Reading the description, I did not expect much. It was not the kind of film I would ever have sat down and wanted to watch. I wouldn’t have sought it out. And yet, I really liked it. It was engaging and propulsive and, even when the mystery of the story was wrapped up, the movie still had me wondering what would happen next. If that isn’t the essence of good filmmaking, I don’t know what is.
More than that, the film is extremely moving. Look, I’m one of the more hard-hearted and cynical people you’ll ever meet. I am not one for sentiment. But still, the film choked me up, and did so honestly, without manipulation. And if it doesn’t choke you up too, you should call a mortician because you are dead inside.
In all honesty, I could find nothing wrong with Philomena. It was not flabby. There was little that was extraneous. It was just honest and terrific and underrated and perfect and my surprise at it is exactly the point of The Also-Rans Project.
And yet, 12 Years A Slave is just better. If both are perfect, then 12 Years A Slave is just a little more perfect.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 It’s also the second film in this series in a row directed by Stephen Frears, but since he doesn’t really have an auteurist touch, there isn’t much to speak about him beyond his immense competence as a handler of stories.