Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Movie Review: Philomena

Movie: Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Dame Judi Dench), Original Score, Adapted Screenplay

So, Philomena. An Irish girl named Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) gets pregnant as a teenager and her parents take her to one of the Magdalen laundries, where she has her baby and works off her indentured servitude. The nuns then adopt her little boy out without telling her. It's not until she's grown old and married and her children are grown that she ever reveals anything about the birth of her son, and starts her search for him in earnest, backed by Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a reporter in search of a story to redeem his career.

That the laundries were awful is really not in doubt. The Irish government came out in 2001 and finally admitted that they were a cultural abuse perpetrated on the women of Ireland by the Catholic Church and the government, who turned a blind eye to anything that happened there. That's not in the movie, where the term "Magdalen laundries" isn't even used, to my recollection. If you want to know what they were, though, look them up. You'll be horrified -- or you darn well ought to be. Also, this is based on a thing that really happened, though I haven't done extensive reading on Philomena Lee's story. But she and Martin Sixsmith are both real people, and if you were in the UK during the time this came out, you almost certainly heard about it.

I'm torn on where I stand on this film. On the one hand, Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are both delightful to watch -- and by that I don't mean it's a light-hearted romp, but that they really both inhabit the roles and make this more than the sob story it might have been. I'm not going to say it's not hard to watch in scenes -- it doesn't pull a number of its punches. But then, it's also tied with Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013) as being the official old people's Academy film of the year. I enjoyed Philomena, I'd recommend it to people (particularly older people, as I feel it targets that demographic pretty sharply), and I think it was really well done. I also like Stephen Frears' work as a general rule. That said... it's not the Best Picture, and I don't think I'd give Dame Judi Best Actress as much as I enjoy watching her performances. I've seen her do better, and that's a high bar to overcome.