Friday, November 29, 2013

Philomena: Grace and forgiveness

Philomena (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and quite needlessly, for fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.29.13

Some of them sneak up on us.

At first, journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) agrees to investigate the intriguing
tale related by Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) because he smells a potentially great
story. As time passes, however, her refined behavior — and generosity of spirit —
awaken a reaction that he never expected: He begins to care.
At first blush, Philomena seems the sort of mildly detached, urbane dramedy that the Brits deliver so well: a “two-hander” that places a prim, proper and deeply spiritual old woman in a car with a cynical younger journalist. It’s a road trip, a genre with which we’re quite familiar: These two disparate characters will get to know each other, achieving mutual respect and trust as the journey continues. Cue the inevitable happy conclusion.

Except that Philomena isn’t like that at all.

Director Stephen Frears’ new film is an acting showcase for star Judi Dench, who delivers yet another mesmerizing performance. Co-star Steve Coogan is a revelation in a dramatic role: a quite impressive change of pace for a confrontational British comic actor who has been nothing short of irritating in gawdawful projects such as Hamlet 2 and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

They’re marvelous together, displaying an oil-and-vinegar dynamic that leaves us wondering, as the story proceeds, which one will get fed up first, and tell the other to sod off. Now, that's dramatic tension.

And, oh my goodness, the story. Shattering, unforgettable, deeply moving and laced with surprises, right up to the final scenes that deliver a truly unexpected — and frankly heart-stopping — portrait of vicious, unrepentant evil.

If that didn’t pique your curiosity, nothing will.

Coogan doesn’t merely play a featured acting role; he also co-produced and co-wrote (with Jeff Pope) the film, having been deeply touched by the book on which this factual story is based: Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Up to this moment, Coogan’s writing oeuvre has been similarly comic, often of the shrieking variety; with Pope’s help, he nonetheless delivers a sensitive, restrained and genuinely touching script.

Clearly, Coogan recognized that he need not oversell the material with florid dialogue or acting histrionics; the story’s core facts deliver their own emotional wallop. Besides which, Frears (Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen and many others) is too accomplished a director to allow that sort of nonsense. He guided Helen Mirren to an Academy Award; he may well have done the same for Dench here.

Sixsmith began his career as a BBC foreign correspondent, working various parts of the world for nearly two decades before crossing the aisle in 1997, to join Tony Blair’s just-elected government. Four years later, Sixsmith was linked to the scandal that enveloped Jo Moore, a government spin doctor who got caught burying domestic “bad news” in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the States.

It’s important to note that Sixsmith was on the right side of the scandal. Proof of his efforts to prevent additional, similar behavior by Moore were leaked to the press, which made him a pariah at 10 Downing Street ... not the first time an honorable man has been made a scapegoat for doing the right thing.

I mention all this because Frears’ film fails to supply these details, and merely introduces Sixsmith (Coogan) as a deeply frustrated — and newly unemployed — journalist and (vaguely defined) government wonk who elicits crocodile pity from former colleagues who bump into him at obligatory cocktail parties. With nothing on his plate but a feeble plan to write a book on Russian history, Sixsmith’s midlife crisis makes him the perfect mark during a chance encounter with a young woman named Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin).

Having overheard that Martin is a journalist, Jane offers what she believes is an intriguing story: Her mother, Philomena (Dench), has just admitted that she bore a child out of wedlock 50 years earlier, while still a teenager. That being Ireland in 1952, she was shunned by her family and sent to a Catholic convent in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, where she bore the child and then had to work as a drudge slave in the convent’s laundry for close to four years, by way of “compensation.”

She and her fellow “fallen women” were allowed to spend one hour per day with their children ... but not for long. As we learn via a series of flashbacks that are intercut with Martin’s gradual absorption of the saga, young Philomena — a shattering performance by Sophie Kennedy Clark — eventually had to watch, heartbroken, as her little Anthony was adopted, against her will, by another family.

Sixsmith balks at first; this sounds like a “human interest story” — a derogatory form of journalism, in his condescending view — and he’s “above” such pieces. But he’s also intrigued, almost against his will, by Philomena’s gracious piousness; despite having every reason to be furious with the convent, or to feel betrayed by her Catholic faith, she is no less loyal to God and the convent sisters.

After all, what she did was a sin, and she accepts that.

Besides which, the convent’s current staff has been quite cordial with their willingness to help Philomena learn what became of Anthony, a clandestine quest that she has pursued for decades. It’s not their fault that the information is hard to come by.

At which point, Martin’s journalist’s radar starts beeping, and our suspicious eyebrows flare.

People already baffled, annoyed or outraged by the Catholic Church won’t find anything here to allay their dismay; indeed, my astonished rhetorical question to Constant Companion, as we exited the theater during last week’s preview screening, was “Are there no depths to which that cruel, heartless institution won’t sink?”

The flashback sequences are bad enough, but brace yourself: Things get much, much worse, as this saga takes its startling twists and turns.

Although the mystery of Anthony’s fate is a thoroughly absorbing quest, we’re primarily riveting by the unfolding relationship between Philomena and Martin. She’s unfailingly polite and genteel: a true lady in every sense of the word. He’s condescending, flip and quite arrogant, not to mention exasperated by his new companion’s continued defense of The Church.

The beauty of this relationship is that, for all her anguish — and it’s considerable — Philomena is a much happier soul, with her unsophisticated view of life, than Martin, who has consorted with powerful movers and shakers. Yes, we’ve seen this scenario a million times, with homespun wisdom proving more than a match for aristocratic refinement ... but Dench and Coogan re-define the template, making it seem fresh, sparkling, charming and insightful all over again.

We’re utterly captivated, even as we gnash teeth as details come to light.

Dench’s performance is a masterpiece of subtlety, Philomena’s cheerful visage not quite concealing the torment in her eyes. She’s simple but not simple-minded — an important distinction — and Philomena’s spontaneous displays of worldliness, played for gentle comic effect, are as jarring to us as they are to Martin. Coogan’s eyebrows rise in genuine shock; we laugh heartily, while noting Dench’s delicately smug look, denoting the satisfaction Philomena gets from defying expectations.

(Philomena’s familiarity with the modern era, and its social mores, results from her long service as a nurse, a career about which we learn nothing ... just as we learn nothing about the post-convent personal life that obviously included a marriage and produced at least one child. Granted, such details aren’t that relevant to the narrative at hand, but it would have been nice if Coogan and Pope’s script had filled in a few particulars.)

At other times, Philomena drives Martin crazy, as when he politely asks about a romance novel she has just read, only to have her deliver a long-winded synopsis that covers every ... single ... detail. Coogan wisely underplays such moments, his deadpan gaze that of a man who knows that he’s trapped, and can’t do a thing about it.

But, then, Martin’s impulsive superiority similarly irritates Philomena, and she never hesitates to say as much ... sometimes rather explosively, albeit at low volume.

These lighter exchanges notwithstanding, the memorable acting takeaways — the moments guaranteed to haunt — come during Philomena’s stricken reactions to bad or frustrating news, another dead end, or the unrelenting battle taking place within her soul. Dench’s shattered features are heartbreaking, particularly as Philomena constantly struggles to absorb, as a perceptive adult, the degree to which she was indeed mistreated, back in the day ... and whether this should impinge upon her Catholic faith.

If forgiveness is divine, then Philomena Lee truly deserves to be sanctified. And Dench makes us believe that wholeheartedly.

Alexander Desplat, the modern master of poignant and often wistful scores — consider his unforgettable work for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — delivers a sweet, understated and unerringly tender musical accompaniment: as subtle as Dench’s performance.

As a behind-the-scenes sidebar, Frears’ film made recent headlines when the Weinstein Company — handling the U.S. release — objected to the frankly idiotic “R” rating assigned by our unfailingly daft MPAA board. Dench resurrected her performance as James Bond’s “M” to star with Coogan in a hilarious short film designed to poke fun at this insufferable turn of events; Harvey Weinstein, never one to shy from a fight, appealed the rating ... and won.

Which is as it should be, because this film deserves to be seen by everybody, at all ages. It’s a timeless depiction of grace under fire, and redemption, and the gratifying realization that people can, indeed, become the heroes of their own stories.

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