Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Setting Things Right

Philomena, the latest film from British director Stephen Frears, is a rewarding film about setting things right. The focus of the film is about a terrible experience from one woman's past and her desire to learn the truth. But this work is just as much about one man's quest to find himself and his real worth, even as he goes to great pains to help this woman.

Judi Dench stars as the title character, who is living in a small town in Ireland. Fifty years earlier, she became pregnant and delivered a son; that behavior was frowned upon at that time for a young Catholic girl in her environment, so she was sent to a local abbey where the nuns would care for her child. This was essentially punishment for being so free with her body, as the Catholic church would have her believe; thus she was forced into long hours of demanding work, while only being allowed to see her child for one hour a day.

Her son, as with most of the other children of the young mothers, was eventually sold for a tidy sum to American parents who wanted to adopt a child in the 1950s. Philomena hasn't seen her son since and wonders whatever happened to him - did he grow up to be a success or was he a failure in life?

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former BBC reporter who was demoted due to a political scandal and is now a freelance writer, learns of Philomena's story from her daughter and even though he isn't excited about writing a "human interest" story, he agrees to help her; after all, his upcoming work on Russian history probably won't make him a lot of money, so that can wait.

Their journey takes them to the United States, where Sixsmith can better investigate immigration and adoption records. His editor is paying for the trip, so Philomena and he can fly business class and stay at an expensive hotel in Washington, D.C. As she has never traveled far from her quaint surroundings in Ireland, all of this luxury is eye-opening to her. She wants to know if Martin has received a mint under his pillow in his room and then calls him on the hotel phone to make sure he has a bathrobe as well; she has two in her room and would be happy to share one of hers. These scenes are quite charming and heartwarming.

But when she finds out the truth about her son, the tone of the film changes and both characters become more introspective. She must learn everything she can about her son, no matter the reality. For Martin, he constantly questions Philomena's faith in Catholic doctrine; after all, the nuns took her child, sold him for a handsome profit and never gave her any information about his whereabouts. Their code of silence amounted to little more than a betrayal.

There are so many strong elements to this film, none better than the screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope (Coogan also was a producer of this film), based on the true story of Philomena that Sixsmith wrote in 2009, titled "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee." The screenplay is nicely organized, as we follow the events of their search, but there is much more depth in the script, as we learn so much about the world view of these two individuals. She's not educated in the ways of the the modern world, so she can learn a great deal from Sixsmith. But he's cynical about a lot of things and he needs her to set him straight on his journey, not only the immediate one, but also his life's quest. It's a first-rate screenplay, one that goes directly to the heart.

It's also nice that the two actors are quite charismatic and have great chemistry with each other. I've loved Dench for years - has she ever given a routine performance? - and here she offers a turn as a simple, yet richly endowed character; she may not be giving instructions to James Bond here, but she's just as strong emotionally. As for Coogan, who is usually relegated to small, off beat roles (the Night at the Museum films, e.g.), it's a pleasure to see him tackle a role of greater signifigance. It's a complex character, one who is not afraid to conceal his anger towards what the Church has done to Philomena, yet he is also filled with personal angst and often feels guilty about his behavior. Coogan handles this role with panache, flair and introspection.

Alexandre Desplat, who I believe is the finest composer working regularly in films today, has written a sensitive, relatively quiet score that is proper for this film. While this does not break any new ground for the composer and does not rank with his very best (The Ghost Writer, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Zero Dark Thirty), it is a very fine piece of work that meshes perfectly with the emotions on the screen. Too often, film composers write "big" scores with melodies that you can hum after you leave the theater, but may overwhelm the action in the story. Desplat has always been very good at writing music that plays up to the moment and while you may not notice this score, that's a compliment, as that means the composer has done his job.

Stephen Frears directs this film without getting too mawkish; after all this is a highly emotional issue, so it could have been a film loaded with melodramatic scenes and cheap emotions. It's a credit to him - as well as the performers and the intelligent script - that this is a work that feels just right. We're glad to have met these characters and are just as pleased that we took this journey with them.

I for one hope that Frears can make more films such as this. His best-known work The Queen (2006) was a perfectly watchable film, but one that played it safe and took no chances. I never felt watching that film like we really knew what Queen Elizabeth was going through at that time, despite the excellent work turned in by Helen Mirren. Thankfully, Frears has done more than coast here while telling his story; he has directed Philomena with a sensitive heart and hand.

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