Judge Michael Nazarewycz is happy to have escaped a dozen years of parochial school (relatively) unscathed.
These two unlikely companions are on a journey to find her long lost son.
Mention the Catholic Church in a room full of random people (or on social media) and two conversations are bound to take place: evolution vs. creationism, and the church's cover-up of its employees' abusive crimes. The former, while it can become quite spirited, is ultimately a debate held at a high level. The latter, however, is hardly debatable and takes on a considerable gravity because there are victims involved. I'd be willing to bet, though, that all of the people in that conversation, upon thinking about the Catholic Church and its atrocities, would think about priests and their (usually) young victims of sexual abuse. Very few, I tend to think, would consider nuns and emotional abuse.
Facts of the Case
Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, What Maisie Knew) has recently lost his job—and quite publicly—as a political advisor to the UK government. The former journalist contemplates using his newfound free time to immerse himself in writing a book on Russian history when he is approached about doing a human interest story. He isn't very enthused about the idea—until he meets the human, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench, Skyfall), and hears her story. That's when he takes interest.
When she was a teen living in 1950s Ireland, Lee was seduced by a young lad at a carnival and she gave herself to him. She became pregnant and was sent off—in 1950s Catholic shame—to live at a nunnery that took in young women that found themselves in that way. In exchange for her labor at the nunnery, the sisters would help raise her child. What Lee didn't know, and found out the hard way, was that the nuns were giving up for adoption the children in their care (selling them, really), to American wannabe parents. Lee was a devastated young mother who spent the rest of her life trying to find her lost son.
In exchange for her story, Martin offers to help Philomena find her son.
It's amazing to me that Philomena is based on a true story because it has so many elements that make it compelling at a fictional level. It has a tragic lead, a reluctant hero, an ancient institutional villain, philosophical debates, humor, and charm. There's even a hint not of romance per se, but of love.
The title character is marvelously portrayed by Dench, who revels in getting completely lost in the role. As Lee, Dench transforms into a delightful old woman who has been haunted—almost tortured—by guilt and sorrow and frustration for decades, and yet fully aware of how physically and emotionally pleasurable her act was. Yet for all of Dench's wonderful line delivery, it's the heaviness of her gaze in quieter times that makes all that love for her you have in your heart simply ache. Dench earned that Best Actress Oscar nomination.
(I must also mention the wonderful work of Sophie Kennedy Clark, who played young Philomena. She is the perfect sparkly-eyed ingenue you would have imagined a young Philomena Lee to be.)
Coogan is also excellent as the world-weary cynic who becomes the unlikely partner—and ultimate champion—of the person who is his polar opposite in almost all categories of life. As writer and actor, Coogan makes Sixsmith funny but not goofy and bitter but not detestable—a man whose motivation to do something for himself transforms into a motivation to do the right thing for someone else.
There are not one but two twists, both handled with a subtle hand by director Stephen Frears (The Queen), a director who knows how to put his audience in the best place to observe.
As for that ancient institutional villain—the Catholic Church—its evil is measuredly presented: at the local level. By that, I mean that the people who committed the wrongdoing are the ones who are villainized. The story never becomes about what the Church allowed the nuns to do; it always remains about what those nuns did while part of the Church. As it should be.
Philomena is perfect parts weightless and weighted, with a pathos that will not bring you down but make you think.
The 1080p presentation of the Blu-ray transfer is gorgeous. Many scenes featuring Philomena are awash in a golden hue that makes you feel warm just watching it. Unhappy settings (mostly the nunnery) are appropriately stark but crisp, and dimmer interiors offer considerable clarity. The best shots, though, are the scenes featuring the sprawling hills of Ireland with their lush greens, and the majestic historical architecture of Washington, DC, particularly at dawn or dusk. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (The Last Days on Mars) brought his A-game, and the disc has the beautiful proof. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track provides fine clarity to the film's audio track, although the dialogue-heavy film is predominantly shot in quite settings, thus mostly unchallenged by having competing sounds that need proper layering.
In addition to the Feature Commentary with Oscar nominees Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (Coogan for Best Picture, both for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay), the Philomena (Blu-ray) offers three additional extras. The first is an interesting, 9-minute conversation with Dench, during which time she discusses the breadth of her career, from her unknown days to her role as M in the recent James Bond films. This could have gone on for hours. Second is a disappointing 3-minute featurette called The Real Philomena Lee. Rather than offer further insight into the woman behind the story, the quick-hit promo piece offers comments by the cast about Lee, as well as some red carpet footage (including a dreadfully open-ended question posed by a neophyte talking head). Finally, there is an excellent 24-minute piece: Q&A with Steve Coogan. The producer/writer/star sits before an audience after a screening and discusses all aspects of the film, from the story acquisition to some embellishments made that weren't in Sixsmith's source book.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Coogan's character—the lapsed Catholic—is quick to faith-bash, and loudly. I'm always troubled when this happens, because when someone says they believe in a higher power, this is almost always a positive thing. When an agnostic's or atheist's response is to start bombarding the faithful person with science or (in a more inflammatory move) start asking why God allows suffering, it feels incredibly self-righteous and terribly condescending. It's like the non-devout is hell-bent (yes, pun) to prove the devout wrong. If it doesn't hurt anyone, just let people have their thing and move on.
This was my second viewing of Philomena (I saw its original US theatrical release) and it actually plays better the second time. Once the drama and shock of the real-life story can be absorbed by the viewer, so many smaller touches can be enjoyed. Plus, it's an intimate tale that translates well to the living room viewing environment. While I wouldn't put it on the shelf next to The Ten Commandments, I would certainly put it somewhere in a film collection.
Catholicism without guilt.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
Review content copyright © 2014 Michael Nazarewycz; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.