Film Review: Philomena – Brilliantly acted and surprisingly witty

10-29-13_review_film_philomenaPhilomena isn’t the type of film that American moviegoers are going to flock to the theaters to see. Judi Dench as someone other than “M” in a movie with a funny name starring a bunch of British people that aren’t James Bond. What’s that Philomena? I’m sorry, American audiences couldn’t hear you over the sound of Thor.

Thing is, Philomena is actually a fantastic film worth your time and consideration.

Philomena, the title character played by the always-fantastic Judi Dench, is an aging Irish Catholic woman dealing with the guilt of having given her son up for adoption fifty years ago (plus just the guilt of being a human and a Catholic at the same time). Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is a former politician turned scapegoat that has been burned by his former colleagues and a little lost in the woods about what to do next. Martin meets Philomena’s “legitimate” daughter Sally (Michelle Fairley) at a party and in no time at all Martin is helping Philomena to find her son and in the process find a great story to write about. The film waste very little time setting the characters up as this isn’t the interesting part of the story and director Stephen Frears knows it.10-29-13_review_film_philomena_screen_4

What follows is the story of Philomena and Martin tracking down the clues of her son’s life to find, and get to know the child (now man) she was forced to give up fifty years ago.  Their journey takes them to some unexpected places and is full of some top-notch twist and surprises. While a few of the “surprises” aren’t all that shocking (Catholic nuns can be cruel? No way!), a couple will manage to completely catch you off guard and the film uses a series of these revelations to really drive the story along.  I hope M. Night Shyamalan is taking notes.

In many ways Philomena is a “finding yourself” type of film, but that feels very lacking as a description. The film is full of social commentary that goes well beyond just the characters discovering who they are or anything of that vein. Though it isn’t always entirely clear just what that commentary is. Undeniably, the institution of Catholic guilt, specifically Irish Catholic guilt takes a beating but it is not alone. For every instance that the film highlights the corruption and underlying hatred and ignorance that accompanies religious fundamentalism, it pokes just as many holes in the cynical often-agnostic “modern society” type view of the world as well. The strongest theme of the entire film though has to be, of course, the sometimes awe inspiring level of love and devotion a mother can feel for a child she has never really known.

This leads to one of Philomena’s strongest points; Judi Dench nails her character just shy of perfectly; portraying Philomena with a sort of brilliant subtlety that has her seemingly daft in one scene and surprisingly quick witted the next and it all seems perfectly natural.  Philomena is in so many ways identifiable as a character because she has so many little traits everyone is just bound to recognize in their own mothers. This plays a big part in making the film relatable to everyone and not just women of a certain age. The unlikely friendship between her and Martin, which works largely because of Dench and Coogan’s on screen charisma, takes on some motherly tones as well and helps to really cement the characters.  In many ways, Martin underestimates Philomena in the beginning much like the audience so when we she takes us by surprise she takes him by surprise as well and it helps to make both characters feel much more genuine. Coogan plays the part of the cynical, wise ass, washed up politician just shy of perfect as well,though Dench simply outshines him at every step. The two very different characters each approach the final scene in drastically different ways yet both feel completely correct; a true testament to the screenwriting as well as the actor’s portrayals of the characters. The fact that all of this is even remotely connected to a true story just takes it over the top.
Judi Dence and Steve Coogan in Philomena
It is perhaps fitting that my last cinematic experience was the film Gravity, in which character development was half-assed and shoehorned in as an excuse for fancy effects. The juxtaposition of that film with Philomena, a largely character driven story makes the performances stand out all that much more.  Brilliant acting and a solid story drive Philomena along and manages to keep us fully invested in this “dramedy” from beginning to end.   Witty, smart and tugging at the heart strings, Philomena will make you laugh, smile and I imagine for many mom’s in the audience possibly even shed a tear or two as well (not unlike several of the people seated next to me at the screening I attended).  If there is any cinematic justice in this world, Judi Dence will be better remembered for films like Philomena rather than James Bond.

Philomena hits American theaters November 27th, 2013.

Final Rating: 8.5/10

CBR Break Down:
How it was viewed: Theater
Running time: 98 min
Steve Coogan, Judi Dench, Michelle Fairley
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Recommend viewing: While nothing needs to be seen on the big screen, seeing it before the various surprises are ruined is highly recommended.
Current price: N/A
Why you should see it: Brilliant performances by Judi Dence and Steve Coogan in this witty and emotional film.
Why you shouldn’t see it: You went to a Catholic school with a lot of nuns; seriously you may experience some PTSD.

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