Sunday, 2 March 2014

Philomena

Academy Award Nominations: 4

  • Best Picture
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Jeff Pope, Steve Coogan)
  • Best Actress (Judi Dench)
  • Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat)

Philomena Lee has been keeping a terrible secret for 50 years: After a love affair as a young woman and falling pregnant, she is sent away to Sean Ross Abbey, where nuns make her work hard while raising her illegitimate son, but eventually the child is sent away and adopted. Philomena has been searching for him ever since, but only recently decides to tell her daughter. By chance, her daughter works as a waitress at a party attended by Martin Sixsmith, a recently fired former government advisor, who's looking for a new project. At first Martin rejects the idea of writing a 'human interest' story, but soon warms to it, and he and Philomena begin the search for her long lost son Anthony...

Philomena is the story of a number of talented actors and creators collaborating on the real-life tale of Philomena Lee, whose story was told and published by Martin Sixsmith back in 2009. First, the writers: Jeff Pope has had a highly successful career writing TV dramas for ITV including Pierrepoint and Dirty Filthy Love, whilst Steve Coogan is known worldwide as the writer and creator of Alan Partridge and other characters. Then, there's the stars: Steve Coogan assumes the role of Martin Sixsmith alongside Philomena Lee played by Dame Judi Dench, renowned as one of the world's finest actresses, appearing in the most recent Bond films, Shakespeare in Love and Mrs Brown. Then, the director: Stephen Frears has directed some of Britain's most famous film exports, films such as My Beautiful Launderette, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen and now Philomena. All the elements are in place to take a charming story to the big screen, and they've done a wonderful job translating it.

This film is focused directly on the relationship between Philomena and Martin, with the hunt for her long lost son becoming inconsequential for well over the first half of the film. It's only as elements of Philomena's son's life are revealed that the plot focuses back to Philomena's struggle. In fact, it's because things shift in the middle of the second act that it's hard to pinpoint just which relationship this film is supposed to be about. Either way, both relationships rely heavily on the extraordinary story of Philomena Lee, which is told in a way which never becomes overly sentimental but is not a cold document of the facts either. Stephen Frears has filmed it wonderfully, and Coogan and Pope's screenplay tells the story of Philomena in a heartwrenching yet light hearted way. Also, the films has been wonderfully scored by Alexandre Desplat and helps enhance moments of whimsy and heaviness in equal measure. It's easy to see why the Weinsteins picked it up and championed it: It's extremely similar in style and form to The King's Speech, and clearly they were hoping for some form of repeat success.

It's not hard to see it being successful either; the strong female lead of Philomena Lee is excellently filled by Dame Judi Dench, one of the finest actresses in the world. A stubborn, deeply religious woman who just wants answers after 5 decades of holding this terrible secret, Dame Judi's performance is touching and underplayed, whilst also providing moments of light relief. As for Steve Coogan, the character of Martin Sixsmith is two dimensional in the film, and Coogan is the man to blame; either he underwrote the role, or failed to deliver the performance needed to match Dame Judi's dominating presence on screen. Either way, Sixsmith is never emotionally relateable and is a poor companion to Philomena Lee. Beyond that, there aren't any other stand out supporting characters, other than the evil nuns, who are so generic they could ahve come from any other motion picture where nuns are depicted as repressed and out of touch with humanity.

The main problem I have with this film is, I fear, in the writing. Where Pope and Coogan have received many a plaudit for their adaptation of Sixsmith's book, I feel that so much of their focus has gone into recreating Philomena for the big screen that they forgot to create any other character of depth to allow Philomena someone to create a rapport with. They do their best with Martin and Philomena, bbut Martin is so repressed and unrounded, that the character can never truly connect with Philomena, and even when he appears to, it seem forced and unnatural. Indeed, like another recent film Her, the best relationship on screen is between one of the actors and someone who never appears on screen with them. Philomena's relationship with her son feels real because of Dench's performance; her emotions are the only ones the audience has to play off of whereas an actual interaction between Dench and her onscreen son might have come across as forced and overplayed.

Overall, this is a lovely story, one that is certainly worthy of being told to a potential audience of millions, and Dame Judi Dench's performance is wonderful, but that's where the buck stops. Everything else seems flat and run of the mill, there's nothing spectacular about the way the story is told and the visual style, while good, is something we've seen before in films such as The King's Speech, a film which Philomena clearly aspires to be. Steve Coogan has made a charming little film, but it's so unspectacular that I hasten to say that this is probably the weakest of all Best Picture nominees this year. Two years ago, I had Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Last year, I had Beasts of the Southern Wild. This year, unfortunately, I have Philomena.

Rating: **1/2

Philomena was released on 1st November 2013 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.