Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Recent Watches: Philomena (2013)

When the Best Picture nominations were announced back in January, which seems months ago now, there were a lot of expected titles on the list. The year end critic’s round-up had presented several forerunners and, predictably, those movies were honored by the Academy. However, there was one title that seemed a little out-of-place. “Philomena” was well-liked by the critical establishment. However, it didn’t receive the kind of raves that usually translate to Oscar gold. The only real attention the movie got was from Harvey Weinstein’s decision to appeal the MPAA’s R-rating. Then again, the film was directed by two-time nominee Stephen Frears. It stars perennial Academy favorite Judi Dench. Lastly, it’s a heart-tugging story about an asshole that learns to forgive from an adorable old woman. “Philomena” might not be blatant Oscar-bait but it’s certainly Oscar friendly.

Oh yeah, it’s based on a true story too. After being let go from his job at the BBC over an off-color comment that wasn’t even really his own, Martin Sixsmith is at a bit of a lost. No one seems much interested in his book about Russian history. For a series of coincidences, he is introduced to Philomena Lee, an old Catholic woman. Years ago, Philomena was a pregnant teenage girl living in a Nun-run orphanage. As was common practice at the time, she was separated from her child, the young boy eventually sold off to a rich American couple. After hearing her story, and considering that human nature stories sell really well, Sixsmith decides to follow the old woman’s story. Together, they discover that Philomena’s son had grown up to be a successful Republican lobbyist and a gay man during the Reagan administration.

The main conflict of the film steams from Martin and Philomena’s disagreeing philosophies. Sixsmith is a died-in-the-woods atheist and makes his disinterest in religion clear several times. Philomena, meanwhile, is a devout Catholic. Martin is stymied by her faith, seeing only years of abuse at the church. Throughout the film, the two differing ideologies come into conflict. They argue during a car drive about the nature of the world. She remains faithful even when Martin makes it clear the injustice she’s been served. The ending makes it clear that this is a story about forgiveness, not a story about belief.

Truthfully, the film’s themes of belief are just in service of a typical defrosting heart story. Martin Sixsmith is presented as someone who doesn’t believe in anything. Philomena is a sweet old woman who helps bring him around to at least believing in people’s innate goodness or something. Sixsmith’s asshole behavior is honestly kept in check. Only two scenes push believability. One is when the two are having breakfast in a hotel. Martin, in as respectful a manner as possible, tells the old woman to shut up. That this comes before a major story revelation is obviously meant to set up a deliberate character contrast. A second moment is when Martin is alone in his hotel room, talking on the phone with his wife. He disparages Philomena as a cheesy old lady, someone invested in Reader Digest and romance novels. Those moments are a little overdone.

Luckily, the film is mostly better balanced then that. The two lead performances, without being spectacular, center the story. Steve Coogan co-wrote the script and the role of Sixsmith fits in nicely with his pre-established persona of a sardonic, low-key guy. There is a sarcastic humor to many of the things he says. The funniest moment is when the two are riding into an airport, Philomena going into detail about a book she just read. Coogan slowly nods, quietly showing his disinterest. Later, when Sixsmith realizes he briefly met Lee’s son, she quizzes him on the details, Martin not remember very much despite her enthusiasm. Coogan even gets a dramatic moment at the end, confronting the mother superior of the church.

Getting the most attention for the film is, naturally, Judi Dench’s performance. Dame Dench has been doing this for a long time and knows how to act. She has no problem pluming emotions for the part. A quiet moment in a confessional booth is especially affecting. When the camera focuses on her blue eyes, years of age visible on her face, the movie’s big, sloppy heart hits you. Even if the movie hadn’t placed in the Best Picture nomination, Dench probably would have been nominated. She is sweet and funny without overdoing it. And hey, why wouldn’t she? She’s Judi fucking Dench.

The movie is most successful in its last act. The story’s conflict is based on whether or not Philomena’s son, in his new life, ever wondered about her. When it’s finally confirmed that, of course, her son did care about her, the movie earns some honest emotion. Most of it is thanks to Dench’s soulful acting and a good supporting turn from Peter Harmann. The story wraps up a sweet note, the characters coming to an agreement of sorts. Aside from Alexandre Desplat would-be Danny Elfman score, “Philomena” goes easy on the whimsy. It’s a likeable movie, no great stakes, but manages to be better then you’d expected. Did it deserve a Best Picture nomination? Probably not. But, eh, it was better then “American Hustle.” [7/10]

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