Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Philomena (2013) ***½

PG-13, 98 min.
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, Martin Sixsmith (book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee”)
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley

The U.S. trailers might leave a viewer to believe that “Philomena” is a comedy about a hardened journalist forced to do a human interest story about a woman searching for a child she once gave up for adoption. The woman is a quirky old person who isn’t very well traveled, and the movie will be a comedic exploration of how these two opposites will learn to live with and love each other. This is not the case.

“Philomena” is actually a fairly important drama about a great wrong practiced by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland that involved young women who were interred in orphanages run by the church where they were forced into labor to pay for their care and the care of their children born out of wedlock. In many cases, the children were sold for adoption and the mothers were never allowed to know what had happened to them. These orphanages were historically referred to as the Magdalene Laundries.

Philomena Lee was a real victim of this practice. Martin Sixsmith told her story in the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee”, which British comedian Steve Coogan has turned into the film “Philomena”. Perhaps the American distributer was confused in their marketing by the fact that Coogan usually works in comedy. However, the film does fit with Coogan’s pattern of telling stories about British media personalities, as Sixsmith enjoyed a long career at the BBC.

There is some humor in the presentation of the material, which can probably be credited to Coogan’s involvement. This proves Coogan to be the right person to tackle this material that would threaten to bury its audience under the burden of the great injustice it explores if it weren’t for the lighter touches Coogan and his writing partner Jeff Pope cull from the story. Coogan is also pitch perfect as Sixsmith, a fairly humorless man coming off a very public political defeat.

But it is Dench who carries the full weight of the film, both dramatically and comedically. She is the core, as the mother missing a part of herself and as the fish out of water, really experiencing the world for the first time. I may be wrong, but I could’ve sworn that Dench had announced her retirement from movies after “Skyfall” due to the onset of blindness. Now, this genuinely important movie shows up, and she’ll reprise her role in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2”. Plus, she has two more movies listed on her IMDb page, one still filming. I don’t know what happened with her retirement, but I'm glad its reports were premature.

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