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Movie Review - 'Philomena' showing the real power of a good script



Overzealous labeling – You ever wonder why we American’s dub a ‘British’ comedy as such? We don’t do that for any other country or region. Is British comedy so different that it needs its own genre? Furthermore, do the British look at our comedies and call them ‘American’ comedies? At a certain point, aren’t comedies just comedies? I wonder about these things when I see a film like “Philomena” labeled as a ‘British’ comedy when it’s really just a comedy. But, the good news is, no matter the genre or label, this film was a nice surprise when you actually sit down to watch it.

Judi Dench in "Philomena"
The Weinstein Company

What’s it about? Based on the Martin Sixsmith book The Lost Child of Philomena, the story here follows one Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and her relentless pursuit to find the whereabouts of her son. This all after she ‘let the cat out of the bag’ that she had birthed a son some 50 years ago at a convent. But, because she wasn’t married at the time, she was forced to give him up for adoption. Upon hearing this for the first time, Philomena’s daughter immediately wanted to help her mother. Only she didn’t know how, so you can imagine her excitement when she was introduced to journalist Martin Sixsmith at a party one night. A journalist who just happened to be looking for work after being let go from his big-time BBC gig. A few days later, they meet again and Sixsmith is introduced to Philomena, who tells him her amazing story. Shortly after that, they were off on a journey to find her long lost son; a journey filled with a whole lot of hope, surprises and heartache that will have you glued to your seat.

Less is more? As the movie poster inadvertently gives away, there are really only two stars to speak of in this film. Sure, the supporting cast was around, but for the most part, this film was all Steve Coogan and Judi Dench. Two English actors that are very well known wind up being the perfect combination for this story and film. And I’ll admit, going in, I thought we would see the same Judi Dench we have seen so many times before. Nothing new, just solid acting from start to finish making me question her Oscar nomination. Well, I was wrong, as this was a different Judi Dench that we have grown accustomed to over the past 10-15 years. At least to me, who admit tingly, has not seen too much of her early work on British television. How could I? I live in the U.S., but it’s interesting to note that this marks one of her first pseudo-comedic roles in quite some time. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much, but she certainly caught me off guard in this role as Philomena Lee and one that made me forget I watching Judi Dench. As for Steve Coogan, what else can I say other than he was the ideal compliment to Dench. So, I give director Stephen Frears credit for putting these two together. Their natural chemistry allowed the audience to see this story through their eyes, which was nice. Nothing too spectacular, just quality acting around a script that is funnier than you would think. Sure, maybe that’s a given when you factor in the “dry” humor you so often found in British comedies, but the actors still have to pull it off, which they did with ease here.

British ways – There’s no doubt a comedy, drama or both will not go very far without a well put-together story. Because acting can only take you so far, so it was probably a good thing director Stephen Frears had Steve Coogan, who in addition to starring in it, also wore hats as producer and writer. That matters as this film was about this incredible story of Philomena Lee and that’s what I took away from it. It was grounded with reality, which is always nice to see given how much unrealistic stories we get on the big screen these days. And while I never read the ‘human interest’ book it was adapted from, I can imagine it does it justice through certain elements, which I’m sure is all Martin Sixsmith wanted when he signed his rights over. Even after watching it, I wanted to know more back-story of the convent and what drove them to the decisions they made during those times. That’s a credit to both writers, who clearly wanted to leave the audience with something to think about. Plus, we got to see some neat Irish and English-looking backdrops, making you want to take a vacation to Europe.

Bottom Line – “Philomena” is a film that most will never know existed until Oscar night when they hear it introduced at some point during the ceremony. That’s too bad; for it deserves to be seen by those who appreciate good acting underneath an engaging story.


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