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Philomena (2013): I Can See Forever

[A bit behind thanks to excessive physical therapy yesterday. Catching up!]

Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013)

Steve Coogan and Judi Dench sit on an airport bench on the movie poster.

I’ve seen places that I never thought I would know.
photo credit:

Stephen Frears, it has always seemed to me, and I rush to add for no reason I can quantify, has always struck me as being Mike Leigh’s filmic little stepbrother—not nearly as well-known, laboring in the shadow etc. where this side of the pond is concerned, but vastly more talented and enjoyable a filmmaker. That has started changing over the past decade or so. Frears is a very good all-rounder, but there are certain aspects of filmmaking where he excels. One of those specifics is pulling the best possible performances out of every woman he puts on a screen. (If you’ve never, sit down with Frears’ two 1987 features, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Prick Up Your Ears, both of which feature a young Frances Barber, for an object lesson on how an actor and a director can work together to create magic.) America stopped being able to brush Frears under the rug when he took one of the world’s best actresses, had the hubris to cast her as Queen Elizabeth, and netted Helen Mirred a long-overdue Oscar for Best Actress. With seven years and six films in between them (including the critically-lauded Tamara Drewe and the equally critically reviled Lay the Favorite), it would be somewhat disingenuous to case Philomena as Frears’ followup to The Queen, but once again, Frears has taken one of the world’s greatest actresses—and if there is an actress working today better than Judi Dench, I am entirely unaware of her existence—stuck her in a role based on a real person, and scored a Best Actress Oscar nomination. (The film is also nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Score.) This is Dench’s fifth Best Actress nomination; she deserves it here more than she has since 2002’s Iris.

Dench and Coogan head for a connecting flight in a still from the film.

There is indeed something special about riding in those silly baggage carts.
photo credit: Napa Valley Film Festival

Philomena Lee (Dench), as we open, is quietly mourning the fiftieth birthday of the son she hasn’t known since he was a toddler; Lee, pregnant out of wedlock, was left by her family with the Magdalene nuns for four years after her pregnancy was discovered; the nuns raised money in part by selling the girls’ babies to adoptive parents, usually from America (one minor character wryly notes that it was the Americans what had the money, in those days). Her daughter Jane (South Riding‘s Anna Maxwell Martin), who knew nothing of this story until that night, is waitressing at a party where she runs into disgraced former journalist Martin Sixsmith (What Maisie Knew‘s Steve Coogan), who’s casting about for a story to get back into journalism; match made in heaven, no? At this point, the movie takes some turns into, essentially, comedic mystery, with Lee and Sixsmith attempting to track down Lee’s son.

Philomena Lee stands over her son's gravestone.

The real Philomena Lee, just after finding her son’s gravestone.
photo credit: The Daily Mail

Both the movie’s greatest strength and its defining weakness lie in Judi Dench. She has taken the role she was given and played it to the hilt; Philomena Lee herself, anecdotally, is said to have loved Dench’s portrayal. (Dench, in an interview, said she was more nervous than she had ever been, since she was playing someone still alive.) The problem is, well, Philomena Lee. A great deal of the movie’s comedy is of the uncomfortable kind, poking fun at Lee’s working-class background and general lack of tact (there’s a scene with a Mexican omelet chef in a hotel that’s positively cringe-worthy) and playing the fish-out-of-water class-war aspect of the film a great deal more than was necessary. To me, at least, it had the effect of watering down the entire last half of the film; the first part is gut-wrenching, while the second is…not. Ironically, in the hands of a lesser actress, I don’t think the difference would have been as severely noticeable.

A very good movie? Unquestionably. All it could have been? No, I don’t believe so. *** ½


About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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