[Screen It]

"PHILOMENA"
(2013) (Judi Dench, Steve Coogan) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A former journalist accompanies a woman as she tries to track down the child taken from her fifty years earlier at the orphanage where she gave birth as a teen.
PLOT:
Martin Sixsmith (STEVE COOGAN) has just lost his job as a government PR director, and is contemplating writing a book about Russian history. At a party, he hears the tale of a woman, Philomena Lee (JUDI DENCH), who fifty years earlier gave birth to a boy in a convent as a teen, and was forced to give him up for adoption. Despite his distaste for human interest stories, due to needing the work, and being a former journalist, Martin decides to tackle the story.

He meets the woman who then recounts her time as a teen (SOPHIE KENNEDY CLARK) at the convent in Roscrea, Ireland. After fooling around with a boy, she ended up pregnant and gave birth to Anthony in the convent where the nuns then made her work off part of her penance in the laundry, all while having very limited time with her boy. That child was eventually adopted by a rich family and Philomena never saw him again.

She and Martin then begin their investigative work, a journey that takes them to the convent where they're told the adoption records were destroyed in a fire. Lucking upon a conversation with a local in the know, they then head to the United States to continue their search where Philomena finally learns what became of the son she only briefly knew.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
It's always amazing to see photos of people you've only known in their older years -- be that grandparents, notable historical figures or even movie stars -- back when they were younger. I'm not talking about when they were cute babies or precious (or mischievous) youngsters, but rather when they were older teen or young adults where you can see the person they'd eventually become.

And in witnessing such shots -- especially regarding parents and grandparents -- you often end up seeing them more like everyday people like you and me, and wonder what they were like way back when in terms of dreams, desires, romances and so on. Such questions and even some investigatory research isn't that unusual regarding adults kids wondering about the life history and course of their parents and other relatives.

It's less common for the detective work to go the other way around, however. That is, unless one gave up a child for adoption and then wondered what sort of person that child grew up to be. As gut wrenching as that decision is for most parents who give up their children that way, I can only imagine what it's like for those whose children are taken away from them against their will.

One such tale involved a young woman by the name of Philomena Lee who ended up as a pregnant teenager in early 1950s Ireland and then had her baby -- as did other single young women -- in the convent of Roscrea. Essentially imprisoned there for her sins as well as to repay the nuns for taking her in and then delivering and raising her child, the young woman had little contact with her child before he was adopted by (but really sold off to) American parents.

Her story was eventually discovered by former BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith who then turned that into the 2009 book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and A Fifty-Year Search." And that's now been turned into a sometimes harrowing, occasionally delightful and certainly emotionally engaging movie with the truncated title, "Philomena."

Featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Judi Dench in the title role, a solid performance by Steve Coogan (who plays Sixsmith and also co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope), and about as unusual and unlikely a "detective" movie as you might ever see, this pic from director Stephen Frears ("Dangerous Liaisons," "The Queen") should be a favorite among critics and middle-aged to older audiences alike.

On the surface, and based on the subject matter, the story doesn't seem like it would be that appealing. After all, it not only covers such mistreatment of young women and abuse in the name of religion, but also later touches upon the impact of HIV and AIDS on those who were afflicted by it.

Thankfully, Frears and company have softened some of the harsher material, although there are heavy-duty dramatic flashbacks featuring Sophie Kennedy Clark as the young titular protagonist, and it's not hard to see the symbolic similarities between hiding pregnant teens in 1950s Ireland with gay men hiding having AIDS when that first started to afflict many).

What helps make the film work is the teaming up of Coogan and Dench's characters as something off an odd couple pairing. His character -- who's been recently sacked for keeping his mouth shut regarding his boss' affair and now is pondering whether to write his book on Russian history or not -- is something of a snob, and the last thing he wants to go back to reporting on is some sort of human interest story. Dench's character, on the other hand, is like many an older woman I know who likes to chat up strangers, and go on and on with stories she's found interesting, yet has reservations about doing anything out of her usual routine.

Putting them together as road trip type "detectives" could have gone wrong in so many ways. Thankfully, the filmmaker balances the right sort of tonal qualities, while the script keeps the story and characters interesting while giving them smart, insightful and sometimes downright funny bits of dialogue to unleash.

What really makes the film shine, however, is the incredible performance by Dench. We've long known she's quite the accomplished actress, and she creates and adds yet another indelible character to her repertoire playing Philomena. While other lesser performers often go big or exaggerated for dramatic effect, she accomplishes the same with far less work here.

A look in her eyes, a certain inflection in her voice and so on drive home exactly what her character is experiencing and thinking to the point that you can't help but empathize with her, root for her success, and join her in whatever emotion she's revealing at any given moment. It's a tour de force performance and I'd be shocked if she doesn't receive a lot of love during the upcoming award season. And that might also hold true for the overall film that scores a 7.5 out of 10 rating.




Reviewed October 23, 2013 / Posted November 27, 2013


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