Why does Stephen Frears make a movie like ‘Philomena’?
Let’s see. His beginnings were on TV (most of the 70’s) before he jumped to the 80’s film landscape along with a batch of new filmmakers struggling to make their voices heard. He rode the tide with films that still have staying power: the fabulous ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ (which presented Daniel Day Lewis to the world), ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ (presenting Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina) and ‘Sammy and Rosie Get Laid’. He soon became bait for the Oscars when he made the extraordinary ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ and the film I consider his best ‘The Grifters’. I suppose that being in the limelight is very alluring, so his next projects were all big ‘Hero’ and ‘Mary Reilly’ but didn’t quite find an audience nor the critics support. He then realized that Hollywood is a rollercoaster and you have to learn when it is time to go low. Among the films he made in this period ‘The Van’, ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ are extraordinary in their vitality and focused structure.
In 2005, he made his first film with Dame Judi Dench ‘Mrs. Henderson Presents’, and, as you might now, she got an Oscar nomination playing the out-of-her-time entrepreneur. With Helen Mirren’s turn as Queen Elizabeth in ‘The Queen’ he secured his place in the Oscars ceremony after many years of absence, and the film gave him a career jump-start in the film market. So we get to 2013, when he releases his next project with Dench in another commanding performance that has gotten her a Golden Globe nomination and quite possible a future Oscar nomination as well.
It wouldn’t be right to attack Frears for having found a formula to subsist in today’s film environment, after all masters like Hitchcock based their entire career on formulas and how they dealt with them. His most recognized films feature a great actor/performance (female and not exactly in their 20’s) and how he simply puts the story to their service. But we also should keep in mind that Frears is a no-nonsense filmmaker who is not prone to making a tearjerker just to cash-in on the audience’s tears. Philomena, for example, finds joy in talking to a Mexican server who explains how to make a taco, and doesn’t know what would be more interesting, whether to visit the White House for the first time or to watch Big Momma’s House on TV because it’s supposed to be “hilarious”. Here, Frears has the perfect match with Dench, who creates a fully dimensional character that comes from its internal angst and beliefs and who expresses her life story even through her choice of clothing and her short well coiffed hair. Through this means, Frears is able to touch on ideas like acceptance, forgiveness and a sense of belonging.
Dench’s Philomena reminded me for a moment of Meryl Streep’s performance in ‘One True Thing’. Both actresses take on mundane characters whose objective in life is family and not personal and professional achievement. They’re not looking to be a hero, nor do they welcome it. In the case of Philomena, she’s been haunted with the thought of her long lost son. Where is he? What is he doing? Has he ever thought of her? Is he obese? (“look at the portions they serve in America”).
Frears intertwines Philomena’s latent regrets, as she holds the little black and white picture of a little boy (her only contact with him), with a pragmatic flash back that gives full dimension to her pain: As a teenager, she was abandoned by her parents when she got pregnant, and sent to a convent where she gave birth to a boy and had to pay for her sin with hard labor (until her son was eventually sold to an American family).
The compelling thing about Philomena is that she is not looking for him out of anger or a need to expose the way the convent treated her. This films is not interested in covering terrain already explored by Peter Mullan in ‘The Magdalene Sisters’. As a catholic woman, she could still be in penitence for her sins, but Dench always reminds us this is a woman with a long life behind her, who doesn’t want legal repercussions or exposure, but just to know and reconnect to something she never had the chance to chose. Nevertheless Frears makes clear the hermetic and cruel nature of religion in keeping people ignorant and submissive.
To dust off the corniness these kind of projects usually fall into, Frears includes the Martin Sixsmith character (writer of the book this film is based on). Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay plays him as an intellectual and rather disrespectful journalist to counter balance Dench’s more down-to-earth and sentimental approach. It seems that stories of “human interest” are on the lowest priorities for a journalist, and Martin makes it very clear in the beginning that he is there for the money. He wants to know who are the “evil nuns” who took away Philomena’s child? Did he die horribly or is he a beggar in the streets of some city? Is she a modern martyr?
In the end, ‘Philomena’ is a sober road-movie with an unlikely couple that may start their journey on opposite sides but end up getting to the same conclusion. Not that this is anything new, but the joy is in the journey designed by Stephen Frears…and in Judi Dench’s exquisite work.