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A Hands-Off Approach Goes a Long Way in ‘Philomena’

The direction is solid but not overbearing, the score subtle and light, the entire affair very nicely cushioned around Coogan and Dench's performances, and the film is all the more effective because of it.

In one of the behind-the-scenes features on the Philomena DVD, writer/producer/star Steve Coogan talks about how great it was to have a Jewish director.

The reason for this is simple: Philomena is the story of Philomena Lee, a woman who gave got pregnant at a young age and was thus sent directly to work under nuns. Being how this was the early ’50s in Ireland, she basically works under slave labor rules to pay off the roof the nuns have put under her head. Her young boy is born (herself not given any painkillers, the pain itself being suitable suffering for this young woman’s supposed sin), is growing up, but given how the nuns assert that the child is actually theirs, they give it away to a wealthy American (as was custom at the time). Philomena grows up without having ever known her child, until a disgraced Labour spin doctor named Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) drops his attempts to write a book on Russian history to do a “human interest” story about Philomena’s search.

The reason why Coogan cites the involvement of a Jewish director like Stephen Frears is because he didn’t understand the importance of a lot of these Roman Catholic proceedings and traditions. During an extensive Guild Q&A with Coogan that’s included on this DVD, Coogan says that the character of Sixsmith on screen is more of a half-and-half mixture of the real Sixsmith and himself, as given Coogan’s own religious upbringing, he had a lot he wanted to say about the practices of the church, and the deeds that ultimately lead to Philomena’s own tragic-yet-moving story. With Frears constantly asking Coogan to explain the significance of a particular moment or tradition, Coogan says that the film got some much-needed perspective.

Of course, in the odd couple/roadtrip conceit that is Philomena, there would be know gravitas without a connection, and that’s why the film’s first 20 minutes or so tend to be the slowest. The flashback footage of young Philomena’s life helps set the situation up, but the scenes and settings are all things we’ve seen before, from innocuous courtship of a strapping young man to heartfelt screams of her child’s name through windows and barred gates. While much of this is paint-by-numbers establishing motions in order to create the movie’s emotional crux (this is, after all, the story of a woman who has spent half a century trying to find her son, so we might as well see the last time she saw him), some viewers may be forgiven for feeling a pang of familiarity with Philomena‘s first act.

However, once the “roadtrip” portion of the film goes under way, and Philomena and Martin have time to get to know each other just as much as they do about Philomena’s long-lost son, a sense of warmth and genuine camaraderie emerges. In the hands of lesser actors, traditional relationship tropes would no doubt be on display, but the warmth that Coogan and Dench are able to create between each other is ultimately what makes the film work.

Martin occasionally makes fun of Philomena’s very-Irish way of complimenting everyone while she frequently makes up her mind in ways that cannot be changed before, of course, promptly changing her mind. That potent mixture of both bitterness and affection comes through no better than a scene set during a hotel breakfast, wherein Philomena chats up the servers with delight while Martin sits at his computer, waiting for immediate resolution to this story so he can send a finished piece back to his editor.

As the two become close, however, Martin takes on the role of representing Philomena’s own anger towards the church for what they have done, even if Philomena’s own anger and rage has subsided as the decades have rolled on. This leads to the film’s emotional and confrontational climax at the church Philomena worked all those years ago.

While spoilers shall not be shared, the shaded rage of Coogan’s performance, along with the way Dench plays Philomena as someone that’s passionate to a fault, are both very laudable. Frears embellishes the film with all the detail that’s necessary, but for the most part he keeps his directorial flourishes at a distant, just allowing Coogan & Dench’s performances to work off each other, and it’s for that very reason that the film is able to be as profoundly poignant and emotional as it is without a single false or manipulative note being felt (the same could also be said for Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful score, which never beats you over the head with any over theme — it just provides the scenes with the right amount of lift without ever overwhelming).

Being how this film was very much a passion project for Coogan, it’s no wonder that his fingerprints are all over the DVD’s special features. The aforementioned guild Q&A is a sight to behold, as Coogan give his typical faux-pompous humor along with genuine insight into how the film is made, just as how his commentary with co-screenwriter Jeff Pope has a few jokes but a lot of notes about the structuring of the film and the liberties taken with this real-life story.

A featurette on the real Philomena Lee is a bit puzzling as a majority of the interview with her actually seems to come from the red carpet from a premiere, and features about as much depth as you’d expect from a red carpet interview. Perhaps the most welcome (and surprising) extra in fact is about the acting career of Judi Dench, who doesn’t mention the film once in a brief retrospective interview where she talks about getting into acting, her breakthrough with Mrs. Brown (after she was told she doesn’t have the figure to do movies), honest advice to young actors, and much more. It’s informal, delightful, and very informative for any self-proclaimed Dench fan.

In the end, Philomena very much stood on the fringes of the 2013/2014 Oscar season, but even with its somewhat conventional structure, the film manages to alternately be funny, compassionate, moving, infuriating, and touching all once. It’s a rare feat to achieve all those superlatives without being overtly emotionally manipulative, but Philomena‘s modest presence actually brings remarkable results, and was without question one of the best films to come out in 2013.

RATING 8 / 10