2013 Academy Awards, 86th Annual Academy Awards, Academy Award Nominee, Academy Awards, adoption, Barbara Jefford, based on a true story, BBC journalist, Best Actress nominee, Best Adapted Screenplay nominee, Best Original Score nominee, Best Picture nominee, Blue Jasmine, buddy films, Catholic church, character dramas, cinema, drama, film reviews, films, homosexuality, Judi Dench, Mare Winningham, Martin Sixsmith, Movies, multiple award nominee, nuns, Oscar nominee, Oscars, Peter Hermann, Philomena, road trips, Sean Mahon, Stephen Frears, Steve Coogan
In the hustle of bustle of awards season, when it seems that every film is bigger, more important and more prestigious than the next, it can be a refreshing break to sit down with something a little more modest, a bit quieter. The 2013 Oscar season was filled with lots of very big, very vibrant films, including American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street, but one multiple nominee stood out a little: the Steve Coogan/Judi Dench-starrer Philomena. Not only did Philomena tell a much smaller, more personal story than the other nominees, it managed to focus on character in a way that (in my highly biased opinion) was only matched by Nebraska and Dallas Buyer’s Club. It was also a bit of a David vs Goliath story, since everything about the film marked it as the scrappy underdog to the more established powerhouses helmed by Scorcese, Cuaron, McQueen and Payne. Like its subject matter, Philomena is the scrappy little newcomer that can – and does – get its day in the sun.
Ostensibly, Philomena is the true story of a woman looking for the son she gave up for adoption 50 years earlier. The woman, in this case, is Philomena (Judi Dench) and she’s forced to give her son Anthony up for adoption when he’s just an infant. Philomena, you see, has been sent to a nun-run home for wayward girls after her “indiscretion” with a local boy and the nuns make it plainly clear that it’s God’s will that the children be separated from their mothers as quickly as possible. Philomena’s best friend Kathleen (Charlie Murphy) loses her daughter, Mary, when the child is adopted and the nuns decide to make it a two-fer, throwing in young Anthony, as well. Philomena loses her son, without even getting to say goodbye, and spends the next 50 years wondering what became of him.
When Philomena’s grown daughter contacts disgraced former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) with the story, he initially blows her off. He doesn’t do human interest stories, after all, since he’s a serious journalist. Something about the story ends up resonating with him, however, and he sets off on a journey of discovery with Philomena, starting with the abbey in Ireland where it all began and ending in America, where they finally track down Philomena’s son. Revelations will abound, however, and the hot-headed Martin will gradually lose his patience with the frustrating “culture of silence” surrounding the Catholic church’s adoption practices of that era. In the end, however, this is Philomena’s story and she knows that forgiveness is the glue that really holds the world together. Will she ever find out the truth about her son? Will Martin ever land the big story that will put him back in the public eye? More importantly, will these two strangers be able to make a change in an unfair system?
As mentioned earlier, Philomena is definitely a labor of love: Coogan got the idea for the film after reading the original newspaper article and was involved in nearly every aspect of the film, including the Oscar-nominated screenplay. One of my favorite stories during this last awards season was the one where Coogan got the shocking phone call about his modest little film being nominated for multiple Oscars, including Best Picture. Stories like this, similar to the buzz that surrounded Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, serve as a wonderful tonic to the usual entertainment industry propaganda machine, adding a little human element to everything.
It’s certainly surprising to see Coogan attached to something so heartfelt but he ends up being the real revelation of the film. As portrayed by Coogan, Sixsmith is an incredibly well-rounded character: a complete, churlish asshole, yet filled with righteous indignation and good intentions. He makes a wonderful foil for Dench and their relationship is the real foundation of the film. At its heart, Philomena is a buddy road movie and those always live or die by the believability of the central relationship: by this rubric, Philomena not only lives but thrives. There’s something almost elemental about Coogan snarking his way through the minefield of contemporary society while Dench projects the sweet, naive air of a child. She’s nice to everyone, regardless of how much they spit on her, while he can’t seem to find anything good to say about anybody, including her. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Martin makes a condescending comment about Philomena’s good nature that ends up saying as much about her as it does about him: “She’s told four people that they’re one in a million…what are the odds of that?”
If Coogan’s performance is a big surprise in the film, Dench’s is pretty much business as usual. Over the course of some 100+ roles and almost 60 years in the business, Dench was become synonymous with impeccable performances and her turn in Philomena is no exception. I do feel that Dench has got a bit comfortable over the last several years, since most of her recent characterizations seem to follow pretty identical arcs (there’s not much difference in personality between Dench’s role here or her performance in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, to be honest) but there’s no denying how effortless she is. Dench is the kind of performer who can energize anything and she invests the film’s various emotional beats with a spunky sense of purpose.
Ultimately, however, Philomena suffers from something that’s distinctly a filmmaking issue: as a whole, it lacks dramatic tension. Despite the trials that Philomena and Martin go through, the stakes never seem to be high enough, lending everything the feel of a slightly bittersweet made-for-TV movie. None of the film’s revelations really affect anything and the one that potentially could, the revelation of Anthony’s lifelong homosexuality, is deflated almost instantly: Philomena always knew that her son was gay, even if no one else did, so this isn’t news to her, even if it is to the audience. Philomena is such a wonderful, understanding person that, ultimately, this particular revelation couldn’t have any affect on her: that’s just not how her mind (or world) works. Likewise, the banter between Philomena and Martin never reaches a critical boiling point, even though Martin frequently acts like a privileged jerk. Like its titular subject, Philomena is such a thoroughly easy-going, good-natured film that it doesn’t seem particularly interested in rocking any boats. After all, the final confrontation is handled not with the tongue-lashing that we know is well-deserved but with the act of forgiveness that might prove impossible for many watching. Like the battered nun in Bad Lieutenant, Philomena forgives her oppressors, allowing her soul the peace it needs but robbing the audience of the easy gratification of retribution. It’s a mature, reasoned way to handle things but it does tend to make for a fairly even, uneventful story arc.
Since I watched Philomena after the Oscar ceremony, I wasn’t able to really consider it as I watched the telecast but the other nominees were definitely front-and-center in my mind as I watched it. How does Philomena compare? In many ways, the film is the epitome of “good but not great.” While Dench’s performance was typically good, I certainly don’t think it was better than Cate Blanchett’s turn in Blue Jasmine. Similarly, while I thoroughly enjoyed the film, it had nowhere near the impact of Dallas Buyer’s Club, 12 Years a Slave or Nebraska. It’s a much smaller film, obviously, much more of a Little Miss Sunshine than an event picture. The script, while quite good, was also overshadowed by Woody Allen’s script for Blue Jasmine, one of his best in years. If anything, I firmly believe that Coogan was robbed of a Best Actor nomination, finding his performance to be much more nuanced and interesting than Christian Bale’s turn in American Hustle. Provided Coogan keeps at the dramatic roles, however, I see no reason why he won’t (someday) be able to take a statue home for his troubles.
In many ways, Philomena is an absolutely lovely film (the scene where Philomena, Martin and Anthony’s boyfriend sit down to watch home movies brought tears to my eyes in the best, most non-exploitative way possible), filled with wonderful performances, some nice cinematography and a fairly unobtrusive score (also Oscar-nominated, for some reason). There are a few too many obtrusive flashbacks for my liking and the aforementioned lack of narrative tension tends to sap much-needed drama from the proceedings but patient audiences will find much to like here. Philomena may not have been the best film of 2013 but it was certainly one of the nicest ones. At the end of the day, can we really ask for more?