JUDI DENCH and STEVE COOGAN star in PHILOMENA
Photo by Alex Bailey © 2013 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.
2013, 98 minutes
Rated PG-13 on appeal for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references
Review by Joshua Handler
Stephen Frears' wonderful new dramedy Philomena is a good-natured, moving film that tells the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who was forced to give up her child for adoption by nuns in Ireland 50 years ago because the child was born out of wedlock. 50 years later, Philomena teams up with an out-of-work (and very cynical) journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to find her long-lost son.
Judi Dench gives yet another outstanding performance, trading in the iciness of M of the James Bond Series or the manipulativeness of Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal for a kindness and warmth. Dench deftly handles the mix of heartbreaking drama and laugh-out-loud comedy in Philomena. However, the biggest strength of her performance is her face. Dench, through some revealing close-ups, expresses pain, love, and kindness simultaneously. Her face is like an open book and will melt your heart. She is a lock for another Oscar nomination.
Steve Coogan is solid, as always, playing his usual role: a cynic. He and Dench are a bizarre pairing, but they have natural chemistry. The two balance each other out and play extremely well off of one another in their scenes together. Coogan also co-wrote the film with Jeff Pope and produced it, making his contribution even more impressive. Philomena's screenplay is its other greatest asset. It is economical and moving and is dedicated to telling this story in the most honest and heartfelt way possible. Everything in Philomena rings true. Even at its most sentimental, it never feels like Coogan and Pope are asking for your tears. When tears are shed, they are well-earned. Coogan and Pope masterfully balance drama and comedy, never letting the film veer too far into one genre or another.
Frears' direction is understated, as always, which complements the film very well. He lets scenes play out and lets the actors and screenplay take center stage. Frears is an underrated director. While he has received two Oscar nominations for Best Director (for The Grifters and The Queen), his name is never passed around with other great British directors. What I admire about Frears is his ability to direct films of all genres (High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, and Dangerous Liaisons are among his other films), and his ability to restrain himself from interfering with his own films. He places his (usually) stellar actors and screenplays at the forefront and gets the most out of both. And again, this is what he does with Philomena. Frears has a humanist touch that allows us to empathize with his characters. Anyone who can make the icy Queen Elizabeth II a complex and not entirely despicable character during the time of Princess Diana's death must be doing something right.
Overall, Philomena is a crowd-pleasing, moving drama from a cast and crew at the top of their games. While this film may not have the gravitas of some of the other films being released during awards season, it is no less great. I dare you to leave Philomena unmoved.