Thursday, February 27, 2014

Review of PHILOMENA: An Emotional Search

February 27, 2014

This appeared to be a simple drama about an elderly lady portrayed by Dame Judi Dench did not really appeal to me. I would have probably not watched it. But because of its frequent citations during awards season particularly the nomination for an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Actress for Ms. Dench, this became a must-see film for me.

"Philomena" is the true-to-life story of one Philomena Lee. As a young girl, she was impregnated by her boyfriend.  She was banished by her parents to live with the Catholic nuns, who eventually remove her child from her after she gave birth to him. For years since then, she has been searching for her missing son whom she named Anthony.

Fast forward to the 1980s, ex-journalist Martin Sixsmith was sacked from his position in government due to a political scandal. To ease himself back into writing, he reluctantly accepts to write a human interest piece, which just so happened to be Philomena's search for her son.

Their quest for Anthony brings them from Ireland to Washington DC. The story would unexpectedly tackle various loaded and controversial topics en route to its dramatic climax and conclusion.

This film by Stephen Frears is basically a film by two actors: Dame Judi Dench as Philomena Lee and Stephen Coogan as Martin Sixsmith.  They acted off each other very well. The way the film showed the progress of their search and its eventual outcome was very riveting and very touching.

I have to admit that while she was very very good, I felt Dame Judi did not really disappear into her role as Philomena. She is acting like she was in other films I have seen her in, particularly "Marigold Hotel." It seemed like she did not have to stretch too much acting muscle here.

I am not very familiar with Coogan's work before, but he was very good here as the disgraced politician who is desperately trying to get his life back on track. His atheism clashes with Philomena's Catholicism. This conflict was very well-written and acted out.

If there was any discomfort in watching this film, it would be a perceived anti-Catholic sentiment that was running through the story. The worst of this was the scene where an old nun was raving about her celibacy and condemning the girls' sins of the flesh. It was probably more "acceptable" in a theatrical production like "Doubt". But in a true-to-life drama like "Philomena," a hell-and-brimstone scene like that felt rather extreme. 

Overall though, this was a very good dramatic film, certainly worth watching.  Apart from Best Picture and Actress, it was also nominated for its musical score and for adapted screenplay.  It should be thankful for these Oscar nominations, I do not really think it would have a chance to win any because of its higher profiled competitors.  7/10.

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