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Stephen Frears is in full possession of his filmmaking talent in Philomena, one of his most pulled-together dramas in years. The true story of a poor Irish woman who, fifty years after being forced to give her 3-year-old son up for adoption, searches for him with a worldly British journalist, is touching, witty and always absorbing. The inspired pairing of Dame Judi Dench and actor-writer-producer Steve Coogan, who is currently riding the wave of the British hit Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, will clinch the deal for most viewers and give the Pathé release a good shot at entertaining the world. The Weinstein Co. will release the title in the U.S. this fall after the film bows at Venice and Toronto.
Though well-received by critics in Venice, its chance of winning a major prize could be down-sized by its similarity to Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, which took home the Golden Lion in 2002. While Mullan depicted the lives of Irish girls who bore children out of wedlock and fell into the clutches of the Catholic Church as slave labor in the infamous Magdalene Laundries, Frears is considerably more upbeat and casts his net wider. Among the film’s themes, broached with an incredibly light touch, are the existence of God in a cruel world and the guilt society attaches to personal sexual expression, whether heterosexual or homosexual. These topics are naturally and unpretentiously interwoven into Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s adaptation of Martin Sixsmith’s non-fiction book.
Most audiences will be hooked on the story, which is a “human interest” one in the best sense. When she is a young girl, Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark) meets a good-looking boy at a fair. She is completely in the dark about where babies come from, and this innocent seduction results in pregnancy. It also lands her in an institute for “fallen women” run by nuns of the Sacred Heart, where she gives birth under horrible circumstances (“Pain is her penance.”) Forced to spend years working in the sweat-shop laundry to pay off their “debt” to the order, she and the other girls are allowed to see their children one hour a day, until Mother Superior finds a buyer for the tykes. The heart-breaking scene of Philomena helplessly screaming as her little Anthony is taken away by a rich American couple in a big car is filmed like a scene from a Nazi film, which is how the hatchet-faced nuns appear.
Fifty years go by. Enter Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a discouraged BBC journalist and former bureau chief who has traded up for an advisory job with the prime minister, and has just been sacrificed. Without a job or future prospects, he stumbles across Philomena (Dench) and her previously hidden story. Bankrolled by a daily newspaper, he takes her to Washington to look for traces of her son, and the rest of the film describes the surprising details of their search.
At this point it’s all about veterans Dench and Coogan, who make a delicious, if a tad too predictable, duet, milking the British class system for non-stop humor that they seem able to turn on and off like a faucet. Considering the Coogan co-wrote his own witty dialogue, he certainly gave himself a lot of good lines. Dench puts her Skyfall sophistication behind her but not her dignity in the title role.
Martin’s supercilious affectation and Oxford ways contrast smartly with Phil’s homey wisdom and, for instance, her endearing affection for tawdry romantic fiction and her non-familiarity with international travel. It’s remarkable these two fine actors pull it off without recourse to sentimentality. Philomena, a devout Catholic, even blunts Martin’s atheistic outrage at the Church and chooses to forgive the inhuman treatment she received, showing how anti-inflammatory the film’s final message is. But even so, it pulls no punches in describing the devastating effects of punishment for sexual pleasure. While old Sister Hildegarde rabidly goes on about punishing “the carnal incontinence of girls,” Frears draws a sobering parallel with the AIDS crisis and the similarly cruel reaction of conservative America. Whose fault is sex? The film asks.
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, like the other tech work, is beautifully balanced and unobtrusive. Given the extended time frame, Valerio Bonelli’s editing advances the story through natural-feeling flashbacks. Alexandre Desplat’s musical commentary is mellow and listenable.
A footnote to history: actress Jane Russell’s autographed picture appears on the wall of the institute, attesting to the fact that one of her three adopted children came from Ireland. According to a character in a local bar, the going rate was 1,000 pounds per child.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (competing), Aug. 31, 2013
Production companies: Baby Cow Productions, Magnolia Mae
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Anna Maxwell Martin, Ruth McCabe, Barbara Jefford, Kate Fleetwood, Peter Hermann, Mare Winningham, Michelle Fairley
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriters: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope based on a book by Martin Sixsmith
Producers: Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward
Executive producers: Henry Normal, Christine Langan, Cameron McCracken, Francois Ivernel, Carolyn Marks Blackwood
Director of photography: Robbie Ryan
Production designer: Alan MacDonald
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Editor: Valerio Bonelli
Sales: Pathe’ International
No rating, 94 minutes.
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