Philomena reviews

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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby Sabin » Sat Feb 01, 2014 4:40 pm

SPOILERS

If I'm being honest, I wasn't expecting very much from this. I'm not sure whether to damn Philomena with faint praise for not wallowing in schmaltz or gripe that going on this journey I felt very little. Chalk it up to verisimilitude if you wish, but even the revelation that her son is a closeted gay man in the Reagan/Bush administration who died of AIDS does nothing to phase this woman. It's matter of fact to a fault. Really this subject of this film is Philomena Lee's and how it leads her to forgive. Instead, it's used as a narrative signpost to continue her journey forward. If Philomena is such a remarkable woman that she has zero qualms with immediate acceptance, then I'm sorrry it's not terribly interesting. I'm not sure Judi Dench really locates the character. She certainly doesn't feel singular or consistent. There's such an intelligence to Dench as an actor that playing someone so doddering yet impulsive, someone prone to saying "I just made a decision!" or the like, doesn't land. Everyone involved with the film seems to think that the real Philomena Lee is a remarkable woman, and she no doubt is, but taken as is I think her story has the capacity to be an engaging piece of work. After all, this must be a film about faith, because there seems to be nothing in the laissez-fare sequence of events that really cries out as a narrative. It's a car ride where an old woman learns things she claims to have already suspected and seems perfectly at ease with and leads towards forgiveness.

It's one of the most boringly directed films in Stephen Frears' oeuvre. It's not for me. I think others may like it more. None of the nominations are very deserved.
Philomena is one of the year's best Philomenas!

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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby ITALIANO » Sat Dec 21, 2013 8:38 am

I probably expected more from this one - but then the reviews had been really very good. And it IS good - if you consider it a tv movie. The much-praised screenplay (which could be Oscar-nominated) is linear, smooth but never profound. There's a good and strong scene towards the end, but I guess that it's the (lapsed) catholic in me who found it touching. And I wasn't the only one in the cinema - the (mostly mature) audience seemed to be very moved, some to the point of crying even. Still I must say that it's not a shamelessly manipulative movie - it's kind of sober, and I actually liked that. But that's not enough - at least not enough for me. I felt as it was always on the surface of things, like, again, a solid, well-intentioned but ultimately unchallenging tv movie. And as for the attacks against the catholic church, I've seen worse, honestly.

But what can I say - before I'm accused, as it happens often here, especially after I committed the crime of not appreciating the American masterpiece Gravity, of being out-of-place in a board about the Oscars and the Oscar movies? It's watchable, light but not idiotic, and never boring. And it's very well acted by Judi Dench, who admirably underplays her character. But then an actress of her caliber by now could do such roles in her sleep - and she's had more interesting parts in movies (including some which were justly Oscar-nominated). And it's so rare that an actress in her late 70s still get leading roles in important movies - I don't know, maybe it will happen to Meryl Streep too, but it's really the proof of an unusual combination of talent and popularity. An Oscar nomination wouldn't be undeserved.

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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby Big Magilla » Fri Nov 29, 2013 11:28 pm

From the Irish Times

Donald Clarke
Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Philomena Lee responds to bizarre New York Post review
A weird notice for Philomena stirs its subject into a lengthy response.

Thu, Nov 28, 2013, 16:26

Stephen Frears’s Philomena — based on the life of Irishwoman Philomena Lee — has just opened in the United States to near-universal good notices. Rotten Tomatoes records 107 positive reviews and nine negative ones. Siobhan Synnot in The Scotsman found the film a little complacent. Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal found it “short on facts”. Fair enough. We liked it very much in these parts, but those dissenting reviews were expressed in lucid terms.

Then we come to Kyle Smith of the New York Post. Mr Smith describes the film — the story of Ms Lee’s efforts to track down the son she lost 50 years earlier — as “a hateful and boring attack on Catholics”. Domestic readers, having suffered through the reports of slavery in the Magdelene Laundries, will be interested to hear that: “The film doesn’t mention that in 1952 Ireland, both mother and child’s life would have been utterly ruined by an out-of-wedlock birth and that the nuns are actually giving both a chance at a fresh start that both indeed, in real life, enjoyed.” Yeah, because the real victims in these cases were the abusers.

Mr Smith then goes on to stand up for another downtrodden section of society: the US Republican Party. Ms Lee’s son Anthony, separated from her when he was just three, went on to become a senior figure in that organisation, but, as a gay man, he seemed to have been unhappy about the GOP’s policies on AIDS (or lack of them). In the film, Anthony becomes, according to Smith, “a walking lesson about the horrors of the GOP”.

We savour independent thinkers such as Kyle Smith and Armond White who take views so extreme you half-wonder if they’re having a laugh. But, in this case, Smith really does seem to be describing a film that nobody else has seen.

Anyway, Ms Lee took the time to respond to the review in an open letter. Here is an excerpt of the text published on Deadline.com:

“Kyle, Stephen’s movie about my story is meant to be a testament to good things, not an attack. It is a testament to the undying bond that’s exists between mothers and their children, something that I’ve found time and distance have no bearing on. It is a testament to the willingness to never give up on keeping that bond alive, even if all odds are pointing you against it. It is also a testament to the fact that no matter how old we grow, there is always a chance we will meet someone, however different from us, that might impact our views on humanity and help guide us on a new, if perhaps unforeseen, path.”

Out on the Twitter machine, veteran Lou Lumenick, a colleague of Smith on the Post, was offering some peculiar defences. “Philomena has no idea she’s taking on a Yale grad who is also a Gulf War veteran,” he wrote. When I responded that this was about as relevant as noting that Philomena was a nurse from Tipperary, Lou hit back: “He’s also a published novelist, of Irish descent.” Oh well he must be right then.

To be fair, it is worth noting that Philomena is being distributed by the Weinstein Co in the US and that those brothers rather savour such punch-ups. Heck, they’ve got me writing about the film again.

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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby Big Magilla » Thu Nov 28, 2013 6:21 pm

The Real ‘Philomena’ Answers New York Post Critic Who Condemns Her Film As An Attack On Catholics And Republicans

By MIKE FLEMING JR | Wednesday November 27, 2013 @ 10:04am PST

It sure isn’t easy being a Catholic these days, especially on a movie screen. Philomena Lee, subject of the just-released Oscar season film Philomena, has taken the unusual step of directly answering a New York Post critic who slammed the Stephen Frears-directed adaptation of her story as an attack on the Catholic faith, as well as Republicans.

Lee is played in the film by Judi Dench, and her story is a crusher: She was sent to a Catholic abbey in Ireland as a teen after she got pregnant and, as was the custom then, was compelled to sign away her rights to the child. She still cared for him for the first three years of his life while she worked as an indentured laundry lady, and then saw her son given up for adoption. The movie is about how, after keeping this a shameful secret for 50 years, she teamed with a disgraced journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to find that son. Since it’s an exceptionally personal story, she has chosen to speak out about a particularly nasty review by Kyle Smith of The New York Post that has become a Twitter hot-button topic. Of the title character’s teenaged dilemma, Smith writes that “the film doesn’t mention that in 1952 Ireland, both mother and child’s life would have been utterly ruined by an out-of-wedlock birth and that the nuns are actually giving both a chance at a fresh start that both indeed, in real life, enjoyed. No, this is a diabolical-Catholics film, straight up.” He ends his review by writing: “A film that is half as harsh on Judaism or Islam, of course, wouldn’t be made in the first place but would be universally reviled if it were. Philomena is a sucker punch, or maybe a sugary slice of arsenic cake.”

I’ve always found Smith to be a pretty thoughtful reviewer, but given this is someone’s life experience, this seems harshly judgmental to me. I’m Catholic, and there are many things over the long history of this institutionalized faith that leave you shaking your head. It’s no different than any other religion, and unlike some of the others, I do applaud the fact that controversial issues can and do get dissected in forums like film. And when you are in church, and feel the swell of faith in your heart that triggers conscience, good will, optimism, redemption and other fine things, well, there is nothing quite like it.

In her response, Lee addresses Smith directly: “Your review of the movie paints its story as being a condemnation of Catholicism and conservative views. It states that the relationship depicted between Mr. Martin Sixsmith and myself comes across as contrived and trite, and funny for all the wrong reasons. Forgive me for saying so, Kyle, but you are incorrect.

“What Stephen Frears did with Martin’s book is something extraordinary and quite real. Stephen’s take on the story of Martin and me searching for my long lost son, who I hadn’t spoken of to a single soul in fifty years, has overwhelmingly spoken to those who have seen it in a very positive light. For that I am intensely grateful, not just because people the world over have watched the movie with open hearts and embraced me for coming forward with the truth after all this time. The story it tells has resonated with people not because it’s some mockery of ideas or institutions that they’re in disagreement with. This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith.

“Kyle, Stephen’s movie about my story is meant to be a testament to good things, not an attack. It is a testament to the undying bond that’s exists between mothers and their children, something that I’ve found time and distance have no bearing on. It is a testament to the willingness to never give up on keeping that bond alive, even if all odds are pointing you against it. It is also a testament to the fact that no matter how old we grow, there is always a chance we will meet someone, however different from us, that might impact our views on humanity and help guide us on a new, if perhaps unforeseen, path.”

Here is her complete response to the reviewer:


Dear Kyle,

Having just had a film – and not long before that, a book – made about my life has been a surreal experience, needless to say. I worked for nearly thirty years as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, a job that some days was emotionally grueling but in which I relished every moment of service. The rest of my time has been spent focusing on my family. All told, I’m a humble woman who has spent a quiet life in England, probably as far as one can get from the chaotic lights and busy chatter of the Hollywood and media world.

It wouldn’t normally be in my nature to comment on a movie review like yours, not just because this is all something new and foreign to me. I consider myself a woman of devout views but also one of considerable open mindedness. However, I must tell you that your take on PHILOMENA has moved me to respond.

Your review of the movie paints its story as being a condemnation of Catholicism and conservative views. It states that the relationship depicted between Mr. Martin Sixsmith and myself comes across as contrived and trite, and funny for all the wrong reasons. Forgive me for saying so, Kyle, but you are incorrect.

What Stephen Frears did with Martin’s book is something extraordinary and quite real. Stephen’s take on the story of Martin and me searching for my long lost son, who I hadn’t spoken of to a single soul in fifty years, has overwhelmingly spoken to those who have seen it in a very positive light. For that I am intensely grateful, not just because people the world over have watched the movie with open hearts and embraced me for coming forward with the truth after all this time. The story it tells has resonated with people not because it’s some mockery of ideas or institutions that they’re in disagreement with. This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith.

Kyle, Stephen’s movie about my story is meant to be a testament to good things, not an attack. It is a testament to the undying bond that’s exists between mothers and their children, something that I’ve found time and distance have no bearing on. It is a testament to the willingness to never give up on keeping that bond alive, even if all odds are pointing you against it. It is also a testament to the fact that no matter how old we grow, there is always a chance we will meet someone, however different from us, that might impact our views on humanity and help guide us on a new, if perhaps unforeseen, path.

Once again, let me state that all in all, Stephen, Martin and I have been incredibly fortunate in receiving such a warm response to the movie. Not everyone has to love it, or take much away from it, but I speak on behalf of all of us in saying that what we don’t want is its message to be misinterpreted. You are entitled to an opinion of course, as we all are. Just as I forgave the church for what happened with my son, I forgive you for not taking the time to understand my story. I do hope though that the families heading to the movie theatre to see the film decide for themselves – and disagree with you.

Sincerely,

Philomena Lee

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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby Big Magilla » Fri Nov 22, 2013 5:06 am

One should never take Rex Reed's reviews as gospel. Still, he praises so few films that it's worth taking notice when he does. Philomena should strike a chord with the Globes, SAG and Oscar voters if not the tougher critics' groups. The only thing I see it winning is Best Actress, but Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay nominations are not out of the question.

I don't recall Reed's pan of The Godfather, but that sounds like something he would say. I do recall his similarly snarky review of Amadeus. My most vivid memory of his reviews is his Ten Best Films of 1977 column in which he named The Turning Point; Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Annie Hall as the three best films of the year in that order when everyone else was zeroing in on Annie Hall. He took the contrarian view that Goodbar, which had received mixed reviews, in years to come would be regarded as a masterpiece while Annie Hall would be pretty much forgotten.

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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Thu Nov 21, 2013 10:00 pm

Big Magilla wrote:Was Rex Reed even writing reviews in 1972? Wasn't he a celebrity interviewer until later in the decade?

He was reviewing movies for the NY Daily News that year -- I distinctly remember his pan of The Godfather (headline: "The Godfather's Family is So Nice You'll Liiike It" -- which was echoing a commercial of the time about earing Italian food). And he had been commenting on movies on TV even before that: I recall him trashing The French Connection on The Dick Cavett Show.

God, I suddenly feel ancient.

Rex aside, Philomena is getting mostly respectable reviews, and could fill the middlebrow slot for best picture.

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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby Big Magilla » Thu Nov 21, 2013 9:50 pm

Was Rex Reed even writing reviews in 1972? Wasn't he a celebrity interviewer until later in the decade?

Anyway Philomena has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 89.

"Judi Dench's portrayal of a stubborn, kindhearted Irish Catholic trying to discover what became of the toddler she was forced to give up as a teenager is so quietly moving that it feels lit from within." = Stephen Holden, NY Times

"Dench is not the only reason to see this unapologetic crowd-pleaser, but she is the best one." - Kenneth Turan, LA Times

"Judi Dench brings the Irish-born Philomena to life with good humor and dignity. It's a wonderfully memorable performance by one of the acting world's greats." - Claudia Puig, USA Today

"It's Dench, showing how faith and hell-raising can reside in the same woman, who makes Philomena moving and memorable." - Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

"This affecting, impressively intelligent drama follows one elderly woman's search for her biological son, who was sold without her permission five decades earlier to a rich woman who pets the boy as she might a cat." - Inkoo Kang, Village Voice

"A terrifically moving film that has a fitting earthbound feel to it as well as a barely suppressed anger at crimes inflicted on the powerless." - Dave Calhoun, Time Out

"Frears, in fine form at 72, has proved himself a modest master at juggling the serious and the silly in such actors' showcases as The Queen and Tamara Drewe; and the script by Coogan and Jeff Pope, brims with bright dialogue." - Mary Corliss, Time

On the negative side, the NY Post's Klye Smith found it to be anti-Catholic and, horror of horrors, anti-Republican.

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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Thu Nov 21, 2013 7:21 pm

Rex Reed could have written (pretty much did) the same about a movie like Sounder in 1972, as opposed to "forgettable" stuff like The Godfather or Cabaret. His whole career has been lamenting the current state of the arts compared to some wonderful sentimental era gone by.

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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby OscarGuy » Thu Nov 21, 2013 6:25 pm

Rex Reed is the guy who reviewed Cabin in the Woods without ever having seen the film. His review discusses scenes that only appear in the film and not the final product. He also recently got slammed for reviewing The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and discussing the merits of 3D versus 2D for the film. Except that neither the first nor second film were released in 3D.
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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby The Original BJ » Thu Nov 21, 2013 6:16 pm

Big Magilla wrote:Rex Reed's review:

Philomena is not only my favorite film of 2013


Well...that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this one, doesn't it?

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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby Big Magilla » Thu Nov 21, 2013 5:50 pm

Rex Reed's review:

Philomena is not only my favorite film of 2013, but one of the most eloquent, powerful and perfect movies I have ever seen. A focused and triumphant performance by the miraculous Judi Dench keeps the harrowing aspects of a great story in flawless balance, and every other aspect of this film works like a hypnotic charm. Sensitively and carefully directed by Stephen Frears and brilliantly written by co-star Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that deserves genuflection.

Ms. Dench gives a wrenching and deeply touching performance of feeling, wisdom and nuance without a trace of sentimental self-indulgence

in the title role of Philomena Lee, a survivor of the despicable Irish Catholic asylums loosely called convents operated by Magdalene nuns in the 1960s to punish wayward girls the church considered “sinners,” many of whom were unwed mothers shut away by their families to hide their shame. The dehumanizing emotional and sadistic physical abuse they suffered as victims of moral rectitude were chronicled in the lavishly praised 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters. This is about one of those victims, a spirited broth of a woman who spent 50 years searching for the son she was forced to give up for adoption without consent.

After decades of fruitless prayers, a chance meeting at a party brings Philomena’s grown daughter, a waitress, in contact with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced political aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair now making a comeback as a journalist for the BBC. Ambivalent at first, he agrees to meet Philomena, and her arresting honesty and unpretentious wit intrigues him. The more he researches her story, the more intrigued he becomes by what became of Philomena’s child. A paper chase leads to America and shocking revelations in Washington, D.C.

For anyone who laments the death of compelling stories in the wake of all the gibberish that passes itself off as filmmaking today, Philomena will revive your faith in movies. Like an overpowering novel you cannot put down, this gripping real-life story allows you to share the journey, step by step, as Philomena, who still clings to her faith, and Martin, a lapsed Catholic and devoted atheist, leave no rock unturned in their search for answers. After the long trip to the old convent, where the young Philomena endured so much horror, the remaining nuns are still hard and unrepentant, telling her the records were destroyed in a fire. But they have a gift shop, where they sell souvenirs for a profit, and a cemetery, where so many of the former girls and their nameless babies are buried. (It’s a graveyard that plays a big role in solving Philomena’s mystery.) With her batteries newly recharged, the sweet, unsophisticated Irish woman named Philomena is beginning to see the light. The more she delves, the more she discovers about her lost child and herself. The convent sold a lot of babies to wealthy American customers. One of them was Hollywood star Jane Russell. I won’t spoil a film beyond reproach by revealing what Philomena finds out about her own little boy, but the facts that tumble out are as turbulent as they are startling. After all the clues are pieced together, the final explanation of what happened to the child—and the look on her face when she learns the truth—will tear your hear out.

Meanwhile, the cynical reporter and the innocent, religious naïf saved by unquenchable hope and indomitable spirit form an unlikely bond that leaves out no funny detail of their own mismatched friendship. Steve Coogan’s writing is a major revelation, bringing to life Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, with great humanity and insight. He’s a great foil for the star, the salt in her stew. As for Ms. Dench, the beauty of her spectacular moment-to-moment performance will leave you hanging on the ropes. One of the heroic masters of the craft and artistry of acting, she melts you with her radiance. Mr. Frears, a wonderful director of actors, is careful to give her enough adequate space to feel her way around in. Whether she sheds a tear for other people’s pain or drives you crazy with her habit of repeating the endings of romance novels (“I didn’t see that one coming!” is one of her favorite lines), she is so natural, understated and generous that you are never aware there’s a camera in the room.

It’s profoundly moving and thoroughly mind provoking, but despite the poignant subject matter, I promise you will not leave Philomena depressed. I’ve seen it twice and felt exhilarated, informed, enriched, absorbed and optimistic both times. This is filmmaking at its most refined. I will probably forget most of what happened at the movies in 2013, but I will never forget Philomena.

PHILOMENA
WRITTEN BY: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
DIRECTED BY: Stephen Frears
STARRING: Judi Dench, Michelle Fairley and Steve Coogan
RUNNING TIME: 98 min.
RATING: 4/4

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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby Eric » Thu Nov 21, 2013 12:42 pm

Will Dench get a nomination? Yes, unless Amy Adams rallies. Will she win? No. (Does she deserve to? God, no.)

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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby ksrymy » Thu Nov 14, 2013 7:06 pm

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-24938350

British film Philomena has been granted a less restrictive rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) after its US distributor campaigned to overturn its original certification.

The film, about a woman searching for the son she was forced to put up for adoption, had initially been rated 'R' for two instances of bad language.

The 'R' rating requires cinema patrons under 17 to be accompanied by an adult.

Dame Judi Dench's drama will now be a PG-13 when it comes out on 22 November.

The rating warns parents that "some material may be inappropriate for children under 13" but does not require them to be accompanied.

The MPAA reversed its original decision following a media campaign that saw Dame Judi resurrect her M character from the James Bond series in an online sketch.

The skit, posted in full on the Funny or Die website, saw M assign Steve Coogan's "Double-O-Two" the task of visiting the MPAA to appeal on Philomena's behalf.

Coogan, who co-stars in the film as a journalist who assists the title character in her quest, attended an MPAA hearing in Los Angeles on Wednesday that led to the new rating being granted.

'No one does it better'

Harvey Weinstein, whose company is distributing Philomena in the US, paid tribute to Bond producer Barbara Broccoli, current 007 Daniel Craig and Skyfall director Sam Mendes who "gave permission to spoof the ratings system using the M character".

"We know that went a long way into shedding light on the themes of the movie and the fact that the PG-13 rating was correct," the producer continued.

"We are glad the MPAA has a good sense of humour and with the cooperation of Barbara and her team it was proven once again no one does it better than James Bond."

Weinstein had previously said that although the film would not necessarily appeal to children, the PG-13 rating was important for adults in certain areas of the US who would not consider going to watch an R-rated film.

Philomena director Stephen Frears said: "We felt the MPAA had made the wrong decision in handing the film, which has no violence or lewd material and the bare minimum of adult language, an 'R' rating.

"I am overjoyed they've changed their ruling in order to give families like mine an opportunity to see this film together."

Since opening in cinemas on 1 November, Philomena - a BBC Films co-production - has made more than £4.7m in the UK and Ireland.

Earlier this week it was nominated for four British Independent Film Awards, including best actor and best actress.
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Re: Philomena reviews

Postby ITALIANO » Sat Aug 31, 2013 12:59 pm

This one has got a very long applause - and very positive reviews from the Italian critics, From what I've read, a Best Actress nomination should be certain, and the (supposedly intelligent, though traditional) screenplay could also get in.

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Philomena reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Sat Aug 31, 2013 12:21 pm

Hollywood Reporter

Philomena: Venice Review

8:05 AM PDT 8/31/2013 by Deborah Young

The Bottom Line

Stephen Frears returns to top form in a touching, at times funny true story of grave injustice and a mother's search for closure.

Stephen Frears is in full possession of his filmmaking talent in Philomena, one of his most pulled-together dramas in years. The true story of a poor Irish woman who, fifty years after being forced to give her 3-year-old son up for adoption, searches for him with a worldly British journalist, is touching, witty and always absorbing. The inspired pairing of Dame Judi Dench and actor-writer-producer Steve Coogan, who is currently riding the wave of the British hit Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, will clinch the deal for most viewers and give the Pathé release a good shot at entertaining the world. The Weinstein Co. will release the title in the U.S. this fall after the film bows at Venice and Toronto.

Though well-received by critics in Venice, its chance of winning a major prize could be down-sized by its similarity to Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, which took home the Golden Lion in 2002. While Mullan depicted the lives of Irish girls who bore children out of wedlock and fell into the clutches of the Catholic Church as slave labor in the infamous Magdalene Laundries, Frears is considerably more upbeat and casts his net wider. Among the film’s themes, broached with an incredibly light touch, are the existence of God in a cruel world and the guilt society attaches to personal sexual expression, whether heterosexual or homosexual. These topics are naturally and unpretentiously interwoven into Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s adaptation of Martin Sixsmith’s non-fiction book.

Most audiences will be hooked on the story, which is a "human interest" one in the best sense. When she is a young girl, Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark) meets a good-looking boy at a fair. She is completely in the dark about where babies come from, and this innocent seduction results in pregnancy. It also lands her in an institute for “fallen women” run by nuns of the Sacred Heart, where she gives birth under horrible circumstances (“Pain is her penance.”) Forced to spend years working in the sweat-shop laundry to pay off their “debt” to the order, she and the other girls are allowed to see their children one hour a day, until Mother Superior finds a buyer for the tykes. The heart-breaking scene of Philomena helplessly screaming as her little Anthony is taken away by a rich American couple in a big car is filmed like a scene from a Nazi film, which is how the hatchet-faced nuns appear.

Fifty years go by. Enter Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a discouraged BBC journalist and former bureau chief who has traded up for an advisory job with the prime minister, and has just been sacrificed. Without a job or future prospects, he stumbles across Philomena (Dench) and her previously hidden story. Bankrolled by a daily newspaper, he takes her to Washington to look for traces of her son, and the rest of the film describes the surprising details of their search.

At this point it's all about veterans Dench and Coogan, who make a delicious, if a tad too predictable, duet, milking the British class system for non-stop humor that they seem able to turn on and off like a faucet. Considering the Coogan co-wrote his own witty dialogue, he certainly gave himself a lot of good lines. Dench puts her Skyfall sophistication behind her but not her dignity in the title role.

Martin’s supercilious affectation and Oxford ways contrast smartly with Phil’s homey wisdom and, for instance, her endearing affection for tawdry romantic fiction and her non-familiarity with international travel. It’s remarkable these two fine actors pull it off without recourse to sentimentality. Philomena, a devout Catholic, even blunts Martin’s atheistic outrage at the Church and chooses to forgive the inhuman treatment she received, showing how anti-inflammatory the film’s final message is. But even so, it pulls no punches in describing the devastating effects of punishment for sexual pleasure. While old Sister Hildegarde rabidly goes on about punishing “the carnal incontinence of girls,” Frears draws a sobering parallel with the AIDS crisis and the similarly cruel reaction of conservative America. Whose fault is sex? The film asks.

Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, like the other tech work, is beautifully balanced and unobtrusive. Given the extended time frame, Valerio Bonelli’s editing advances the story through natural-feeling flashbacks. Alexandre Desplat’s musical commentary is mellow and listenable.

A footnote to history: actress Jane Russell’s autographed picture appears on the wall of the institute, attesting to the fact that one of her three adopted children came from Ireland. According to a character in a local bar, the going rate was 1,000 pounds per child.


Variety
Justin Chang
Senior Film Critic@JustinCChang

A howl of anti-clerical outrage wrapped in a tea cozy, “Philomena” applies amusing banter and a sheen of good taste to the real-life quest of Philomena Lee, an Irishwoman who spent decades searching for the out-of-wedlock son taken from her by Catholic nuns and sold into adoption overseas. Smoothly tooled as an odd-couple vehicle for Judi Dench in the title role and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the British journalist who brought Lee’s story to international attention, this smug but effective middlebrow crowdpleaser boasts a sharper set of dentures than most films of its type, shrewdly mining its material for laughs and righteous anger as well as tears. With an awards push for Dench likely in the works, the Weinstein Co. should have no trouble positioning director Stephen Frears’ latest as a sleeper success, certain to rouse audiences not put off by its genteel calculation.

In adapting Sixsmith’s 2009 book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope have essentially merged a culture-clash comedy with “The Magdalene Sisters,” Peter Mullan’s searing 2002 drama about the Irish Catholic asylums where thousands of “fallen” women were sent and punished for their sexual promiscuity. The Roscrea convent where Lee gave birth in 1952 appears to have been a marginally less inhumane place, allowing the teenage mother (played in flashbacks by an excellent Sophie Kennedy Clark) to see her son, Anthony, for an hour each day in between back-breaking laundry shifts. But in 1955, the boy was taken away and adopted by a wealthy American family, never to be seen again by his birth mother even though she spent decades searching for him.

In the script’s tidier version of events, Philomena (Dench) doesn’t really begin her search for Anthony until the early 2000s, when she finds an unlikely ally in Martin (Coogan), an ex-BBC correspondent and recently ousted civil servant trying to get back into the journalism game via the mildly humiliating route of writing a human-interest piece. After the nuns at the Roscrea convent prove singularly unhelpful, politely but firmly reminding Philomena that she signed away all claims to the child, she and Martin follow a lead to Washington, D.C., hoping to find Anthony and re-establish contact.

It’s an undeniable whopper of a yarn and, coming after a string of middling efforts from Frears, easily the director’s most compulsively watchable picture since “The Queen.” It hardly gives away the story’s outcome (by now of course a matter of public knowledge) to note that Martin and Philomena’s journey winds up leading them, after a fashion, back to the Church’s doorstep, setting the stage for an emotionally satisfying confrontation with the institutional forces of judgment, repression and hysteria responsible for exploiting countless mothers and their long-lost children.

Indeed, “Philomena’s” slap in the face of religious authority is stinging enough that it could draw ire from conservative groups and publications that care to take an interest, which should only boost its commercial profile. (Along similar political lines, Martin’s investigation even allows for a not-irrelevant swipe at the Reagan administration’s AIDS policy.) These differences of culture, values and temperament are not incidental to the film’s pleasures; they are in fact its primary narrative engine, grounded in the tension between two improbably matched protagonists. Martin, the cynical, world-weary atheist who rudely questions everyone and everything, could scarcely be more different from Philomena, the sweet-tempered Irish biddy who still clings to her faith in God and humanity.

And while Philomena may monopolize the title, the film, with its slick, mocking tone and faintly condescending aftertaste, is ultimately far more on Martin’s side. Much of the humor here comes at the expense of Philomena’s naivete, excessive grandmotherly kindness and lack of worldly sophistication, and while the character is certainly fair game, after a while it’s hard not to wonder if the writers are simply scoring points off her. Hearing Philomena prattle on and on about the romance novel she can’t put down is genuinely amusing the first time; having her suggest they stay in their hotel and watch “Big Momma’s House” on-demand taxes plausibility and patience.

The patronizing sensibility at work even has a diminishing effect on Dench’s otherwise fine, dignified performance; appearing not very bright remains an obstacle that this fiercely intelligent actress only occasionally surmounts. Nonetheless, she invests this twinkly-eyed paragon of virtue with real warmth and tenderness without overdoing the sentimentality, and she can be surprisingly articulate when she needs to be, often letting Martin know exactly what she thinks of his sour worldview. Dench and the script achieve their finest moments when Philomena, for all her rectitude, expresses a surprisingly open-minded view of sexuality, rooted in her still-fond memories of the teenage fling that led to Anthony’s conception in the first place.

The two leads make decent sparring partners and better allies, and Coogan is especially good whenever Martin’s impatient manner tilts into genuine moral indignation. Ace d.p. Robbie Ryan’s HD lensing brings an attractive polish to the D.C. and London locations, but the film’s real formal coup lies in the flashbacks to 1950s Roscrea, distinctively shot on Super 16 and evoking the grainy look of an earlier era. Alexandre Desplat’s churning score is expectedly overactive.


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