Monday, January 20, 2014

"Philomena" review

Philomena Lee is an elderly woman who has kept a secret hidden for 50 years. When she was 18 she gave birth to a son in a convent and was eventually forced to give him away via adoption three years later. She signed a form which stated that she could never attempt to find her son, no matter the circumstances. Whether she was coerced to sign it remains uncertain although she insists that it was done on her own accord.

Now, she's pushing 70. A journalist, Martin Sixsmith, recently lost his job as a Labour government adviser and, after some hesitation, decides to take on Philomena Lee's story. Together, they will attempt to find her son in a journey that leads them from Ireland to Washington DC and back to Ireland.

The strength of "Philomena" lies entirely on the fact that this is based on a true story. There really was a Philomena Lee and she really was forced to give up her son and kept that fact hidden for 50 years. Each new detail that is unveiled seems more unbelievable, but it really happened. What Philomena is forced to go through would make any sensible person feel angry, but what's remarkable about her is how she ultimately finds a way to forgive all those who have wronged her. Even when her search leads to a dead end, she's still able to find some sort of closure. "Philomena" may end on a more bittersweet note than an all-out happy ending, but that's kind of the point. For many of us, it wouldn't be a happy ending, but Philomena manages to put a positive spin on her entire journey, which makes this movie more a profound experience than you might have expected.

Judi Dench gives a wonderful performance as the title character. She plays Philomena with just the right touch, bringing a necessary layer of depth to a complicated person. Her character goes through a great deal of pain internally, but when she goes to American to find her son, she takes great joy in the trip itself. She talks very kindly to the hotel staff and treats everyone with respect. You also get the sense that she hasn't had many opportunities to go out much in her lifetime, yet here she is, finally confronting all this pain she kept hidden away with a smile on her face.

If I had a slight issue with "Philomena," it would be Steve Coogan's character, Martin Sixsmith. There does not seem to be much beyond the surface of this character. You get a few hints here and there about Martin's struggles with his faith. He grew up a Catholic but has since had a complicated relationship with God. He doesn't forgive people as easily as Philomena does and her naivete and positive approach towards life is constantly at odds with him. While some comedy is mined in their odd-couple relationship, Martin seems more and more like a downer as the film goes on.

Coogan, who co-wrote the film, seems as if he wanted to approach this material as lightly as possible, but there seems to be a weird tonal contrast between Philomena's story and the road trip comedy. They get in a couple cheap laughs thanks to Philomena's "naive old Irish lady" antics, but once you realize the inherent tragedy that's taking place in the title character's attempts to find her son, the weight of the drama is just a bit too heavy and it makes the attempts to keep things light feel a little false. Like, it's a deliberate attempt to keep things as "easy-to-swallow" as possible.

Still, for an "easy-to-swallow" light drama, the filmmakers must be applauded for not holding anything back in their views against the convent. There was some controversy involving the way the Catholic church was perceived in the film, with the New York Post's Kyle Smith insensitively belittling Philomena's story in defense of the poor, ol' Catholic church. Any good intentions the church had in taking care of these teenage mothers goes out the window when you see how they consistently turned Philomena away whenever she inquired about her son. In a religion based on forgiveness, they seem absolutely insistent in making these poor mothers suffer the consequences of their actions when they were teens. For the rest of their lives, they have to constantly wonder where their children are, and to know that Philomena's son could have reunited with his mother much sooner will leave an uncomfortable pit in your stomach. It's heartbreaking.

Director Stephen Frears does an honorable job of staying out of the way and letting the story speak for itself. He still adds some nice touches in the flashback sequences, which make you feel the weight of the story without making it overly-sentimental. In general, praise must be given to the screenwriters for keeping the story grounded in reality, never letting the story drift into melodrama.

If you were hesitant in seeing "Philomena," don't be. This really is an incredible story and it's best to go into the movie knowing as little as possible. While the movie doesn't quite have a gut punch, it still feels refreshingly bittersweet. It will remind you never to take anything for granted, never allow yourself to keep things hidden away, because you never know what you'll learn when you finally decide to confront your fears. But, "Philomena" isn't just about confrontation, it's about forgiveness. Would you be as willing to forgive at the end of this movie, like Philomena was? That's what makes this such a powerful story.

Grade: B+

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