Thursday, December 5, 2013


In the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an old Irish woman in her 70s who kept the secret of her abducted child for 50 years, it's less about discovering the details of her son but what these discoveries mean for her. As portrayed in Stephen Frears ("Dirty Pretty Things," "The Queen") new film, it's thank goodness for Judi Dench who manages to not sentimentalize the sometimes naive and simple character always looking for the best in people. So much so that she hesitates before incriminating the very convent who stole her three-year-old son away from her when she was a teenaged girl.

The covent's nuns are quickly dubbed the "evil nuns" of Philomena's human interest story, one that British political writer and journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) begrudgingly takes on after being out of a job. He doesn't necessarily care for Philomena's personal story but is cherry-picking for what would make good journalism, "evil nuns" included. The fact is, however, they are a representation of the worst of Catholicism: shockingly cruel acts committed under a veneer of sanctity. Also touched on throughout the film: the ignorant social restrictions of the Republican party.

But all of this is contained within a film that is quaint and slight, never committing to deeper moral themes about institutional wrongs. Co-written by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, the film suffers from tonal confusion but mostly maintains a light, pleasant air occasionally dipping into emotional waters via Dench's soulful performance. Coogan's Sixsmith remains a one-note curmudgeon throughout, which is darkly humorous -- as the actor's most dramatic role yet -- but it begins to tire, especially when the always well-meaning Philomena can't even break through to him. A woman who manages to forgive a horrible sin committed against her should be able to transfer a lesson on to the man, but to no avail.

"Philomena" boils down to Judi Dench, giving us a woman no stranger to sorrow but who knows how to put her best foot forward. It's both a delightfully playful and fittingly gloomy performance that deserves the accolades it'll receive come Oscar time. Although the dame deserved it just as much playing the ill-fated M from last year's "Skyfall."

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