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'Philomena' review: Dench and Coogan bring perfect heartfelt chemistry

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Simultaneously heartbreaking, humorous, and heartening, "Philomena" offers an excellent Thanksgiving movie option. Drama fans will love it, and I dare anyone but the most committed curmudgeon to disagree. The one proviso: if there’s any unfinished adoption business in one’s life, bring a friend, since it’ll hit home, guaranteed.

"Philomena" brings us the true account of the quest of Irish Catholic Philomena Lee and world-weary British journalist Martin Sixsmith, who in exchange for writing her story, assists her in finding Anthony, the son she was forced to relinquish as a young unwed mother consigned to a convent fifty years prior.

In "The Tree of Life", writer/director Terrence Malick elucidates the ways of Nature and of Grace. Nature is directive, linear, sculpted, insistent, while Grace is patient, timeless, organic, accepting; which way one chooses shapes one’s identity, and perhaps even the course of one’s destiny. In Sixsmith and Lee, "Philomena" becomes an exquisite contemplation of these two ways ~ what they offer, and what they risk.

Not to mention, it’s one heck of a story.

The casting is world class. Not often do the stars align to offer an actor who not only resembles the principal without the use of distracting prosthetics, but also is capable of delivering with A-list excellence ~ and here it happened not once, but twice.

Of course the primary attention goes to the mighty Judi Dench as Philomena Lee. Dench will likely earn award buzz come springtime, and deservedly so of course. (Interestingly, two days before posting this piece I’d turned on the TV for company during some Thanksgiving prep, and opted for Notes on a Scandal (lots of talking, easy to follow from another room while playing the well-familiar visuals in my mind). The contrast between Dench’s winsome Philomena Lee and her vile Barbara Covett is quite utterly delicious.)

In Dench’s skilled hands, Philomena is revealed over time to be the picture of Grace. At first glance Philomena may seem like a sheltered, guileless, almost naïve lamb-grown-up, but on second glance she surprises: Philomena is not sheltered, she is choosing not to be worldly. And at third glance, she awes: she is not choosing not to be worldly, she is choosing to overcome the world.

And ever close at Dench’s side is the superb Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the picture of Nature. Coming from the dog-eat-dog political arena, Sixsmith has just found himself given the boot as the fall guy in a media-driven misunderstanding, one of those “someone’s head must roll” proceedings.

Adrift and at a loss as to his next move, Sixsmith is fighting off a depression and struggling to reinvent himself amid a constant and relentless stream of commentary to his face regarding his so-called transgression. Holding but one lame idea in his hand when he happens upon the opportunity to write Philomena’s story, he accepts it with a better-than-nothing attitude, and finds that it sparks the revivification of his both his spirit and his career.

Together Dench and Coogan portray this unlikely and eventually deeply affectionate duo with all the charm, humor, dignity, and determination due them. Their chemistry as actors comes through far more beautifully than the principals began with, and bring both pairs home with a power that requires at least one tissue.

As with 2006’s "The Queen", director Stephen Frears again proves himself adept at managing high emotional charge with a gentle touch, refraining from hammering us with the event’s severity while never minimizing its gravity. Andre Desplat’s score lilts gently along Frears’ path, and with its gentle escalation, I found myself amiably walking it with Philomena and Martin, until it rather suddenly came over me I would simply die unless they found Anthony.

In so doing, Frears allows a person’s story to be told in a way that everyone can hear it ~ even, perhaps, those who share the principals’ grief. I have not walked in Philomena’s shoes, but came away both outraged and accepting of her situation, and since Nature and Grace both filled me, I’d venture to say that Frears and company pretty well pegged it. And that we can remain lighthearted even as we walk with our people through some truly grueling circumstances is a testament to the execution by cast and crew alike (very much like "50/50" in that respect).

It’s worth noting that some dramatic timeline adjustment does occur, but that it changes neither the events nor the outcome. There is a scene late in the game involving a confrontation that could not have happened according to laws of time and space; that said, long external evidence supports the portrayal, and the individual in question did indeed produce the facts of Philomena’s life and those of her son’s.

Dramatic license was taken in crafting this scene, but all it does is to solidify the impact of their experience, counterpoint the two major viewpoints at work, and drive the overarching point straight home like a laser. In other words, had the one logistical bugaboo been moot, the likelihood that this would have been the actual encounter amounts to about 90%. And that’s what dramatic license is all about: to amplify the story’s power without changing any material fact.

For those concerned about the portrayal of the Catholic church, be assured that "Philomena" brooks no excuse for the behavior of some, but launches no condemnation at its group. Just as rational people do not condemn all priests as being pedophiles, so does "Philomena" present a balanced perspective.

For my Catholic friends, fear not; for my “raised Catholic” friends, here’s some more grist for the mill. ;) For the rest of us, it’s moot. For all of us, it’s an inspiration.

Story: The true account of the quest of Irishwoman Philomena Lee and British journalist Martin Sixsmith,

Genre: Drama, Biography

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Sophie Kennedy Clarm, Mare Winningham

Directed by: Stephen Frears


Running time: 98 minutes

Official site:

Houston release date: November 27, 2013

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened Nov 19th at the Sundance Cinemas in Houston TX


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