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Movie review: 'Philomena' is an unexpected and worthy drama

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Philomena

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"PHILOMENA"-- 4 STARS

In the five years since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the Oscar field of Best Picture nominees from five films to a maximum of ten, the initial goal has been to spotlight and honor more films. On one end, some critics (including myself) have said that this waters down the Best Picture field and includes movies that wouldn't normally be deserving. Others support the Academy's goal that the expanded opportunity for accolade and appreciation for otherwise lesser-known, yet worthy films is a positive improvement.

"Philomena," the latest feature from director Stephen Frears ("Dangerous Liasons," "The Grifters," "High Fidelity," "The Queen"), is one such little film that likely wouldn't get the attention it deserves in a five-nominee field for Best Picture. The film is up for four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Actress. In profound fashion, it deserves every single one of those nominations in each respective category. "Philomena" may be a smaller British film, but it is a touching story that deserves to be seen by larger audiences.

I missed the initial wave of "Philomena"'s early December 2013 release, but was very glad to catch it recently at a local second-run theater. I regret that I didn't get to see it sooner. Based on the true story of Martin Sixsmith's 2009 novel The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, seven-time Oscar nominee and winner Judi Dench inhabits the title role while comedian Steven Coogan plays Sixsmith himself and adapted the novel behind the camera with screenwriter Jeff Pope. The film follows one woman's search for her son who was given up for adoption and the journalist that gave her human interest story a chance.

When she was just a teen living at a Catholic convent in Rosecrea, Ireland, Philomena Lee (played in her youth by newcomer Sophie Kennedy Clack) became pregnant from a sexual encounter with a boy that went against her vow of celibacy. Soon after, she painfully gave birth to a son named Anthony, but was shunned by the nuns as committing unforgivable sin. She, like the other convent mothers, only gets to see her son an hour a day. Within two years, Anthony was taken from Philomena and given up for adoption from the convent orphanage. It's now fifty years later and she has never seen or heard from him. Troubled at her advanced age, Philomena (Dench) reveals this long-held secret to her adult daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) and decides to find and reunite with her son.

When we meet Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) at the opening of this story, he has just lost his job as a government adviser in the collateral damage fallout of a public scandal that happened on his watch. Out of work and out of favor, he weighs either writing a novel on Russian history or going back to his journalist roots. He is approached at a party by Jane, but quickly dismisses doing a human interest story. Upon meeting Philomena and being urged by his editor to take an easy job, he champions her search to find her long-lost Anthony. It is a quest that brings them to America and becomes a small mystery story of old rules and old wounds.

"Philomena" is a movie that sneaks up on you in cliche-breaking ways. Right off the bat, by being "inspired by a true story," we begin to expect something overly sentimental. We see longtime favorite Judi Dench and expect her usual sardonic and stoic persona as the old women you don't mess with from the James Bond films. We see the odd couple pairing of Dench and Coogan and think May-December quirkiness. We hear of the adoption reunion crux to this film's adapted true story and expect crescendos and tears straight out of a Lifetime TV movie.

None of those elements emerge from "Philomena," quite the opposite, actually. This is a true story that is unexpectedly mysterious through its small narrative turns, with revelations that evolve in stern directions of seriousness and larger issues at play. Oscar-nominated composer Alexandre Desplat punctuates these moments and turns with a stunningly beautiful musical score. Frears populates this story with heartbreaking flashbacks and even home movie replicas to shed light on a life missed, yet fully experienced. This story, as foreign in location and time period as it is, becomes something you almost feel you witnessed rather than simply watched for entertainment in a 95-minute film. It affects you that strongly.

Judi Dench brilliantly removes most of her toughness and treats us to a new and touching side of her acting with a characterization of a truly interesting woman of faith. The team effort of Martin helping Philomena becomes an often funny and touching story of a trusted confidant. The characters and actors are perfect foils between two differing schools of thought and backgrounds between the devout simple woman and the cynical atheist reporter.

Finally, the expected reunion you feel is coming a mile away plays out far differently than you might think. The credit for fashioning this entire remarkable story goes to Coogan and Pope and their Oscar-nominated screenplay. Very little dramatic license invades this true story. The strength is truly in this woman's journey, one that grows in volume when you realize that she is one of many women to lose children through forced adoption. "Philomena" is an Oscar worthy film that the new rule of expansion for Best Picture got right.

LESSON #1: THE OLD WAYS OF CATHOLIC NUNS-- One large media criticism that has been following this film around is the borderline hateful and evil depiction of Catholicism. The nuns of the Rosecrea abbey are portrayed as strict, vindictive, and single-minded with their doctrine of right and wrong. In this film's point of view, they took away a woman's child, gave it up for adoption, forced contractual consent, and falsified records under the name of penance and righteousness. It's not a pretty picture and one that is a bit hard to fathom.

LESSON #2: THE LOSS COMPONENT OF ADOPTION-- While convents are not the only groups to practice forced adoptions, this story shows the powerful feelings of loss and helplessness felt by a detached mother. Philomena never forgot her son and always wondered what kind of life he led after their separation. Even with her daughter Jane, she always felt incomplete and wondered if her son ever grew up to share those feelings of loss and worry.

LESSON #3: THE OPPOSING VIEWS OF SIN-- With the deep religious setting and angle of this story, much is discussed on the severity of sin from opposing viewpoints. As wronged as Philomena was in losing her son, she knew with faith and acceptance that such punishment and penance was, in some ways, necessary for her sin of enjoying sexual intercourse. She knew what she agreed to in living in the convent. This differs greatly to the point of view of Martin who finds zero flexibility or forgiveness in the actions done to Philomena and her son. He doesn't call Philomena's mistakes sins and refuses to believe that this level of punishment fits the so-called crime.

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