Of the Best Picture nominees, this one baffles me the most: Stephen Frears’ Philomena is a smaller, twee-er movie when compared to its contemporaries, and while it does deal with some larger, headier topics (staying hopeful in the face of injustice, religion, family), it feels relatively trifling. Indeed, Philomena feels like a British “discomfort comedy” that was transformed into something classier by its talented director.
Co-written by Steve Coogan and based on a true story, Philomena is about the elderly title character and her mistreatment at the hands of the Magdalene convents back in the 1950s. Certain Irish convents at that time had a pretty awful scam going: They would essentially imprison young women they deemed to be sinners – usually teens who were impregnated out of wedlock – and keep them cloistered. The babies the teens had would then be sold to wealthy American couples without the mother’s consent (this was all detailed in a 2002 film called The Magdalene Sisters). Eventually, this malfeasance was confronted, but many women were still denied access to their children.
Philomena Lee (Judi Dench, excellent as always) was one of those women. In her 70s, Philomena is still a devout Catholic despite it all, and has decided she wants to find the son that was taken away from her all those years ago. With the aid of a disgraced reporter named Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), she investigates where her son might be, and discovers that he may be involved in American politics. It’s a true story, but I will leave further plot secrets to be discovered.
If one squints, one can see a screenplay without the movie around it, and I suspect that Coogan’s screenplay was intended to be an outright comedy. The bulk of the film involves Philomena’s upbeat religious optimism and chirpy pastoral nature clashing directly with Martin’s self-deprecating cynicism about religion and just about everything else. I suspect that Coogan was – on the page – supposed to be the put-upon hero who has to endure a cutesy old lady to comic effect.
Director Stephen Frears, however, seems to have changed the film into something more sophisticated, building Philomena into an optimistic soul and a stalwart hero, and making Martin into the sidekick of the piece. So it becomes much less of a will-they-get-along sitcom (despite scenes where Philomena insist that the two of them stay in their hotel and watch Big Momma’s House), and more a genuine clash of personalities between someone who was grievously wronged but still manages to be hopeful, and someone who is professional and smart, but clings to his bitterness. “I’m still angry,” Martin openly declares near the end of the film, outraged by what Philomena had to suffer. Philomena turns to him and, in a fit of overwhelming strength manages to say, “How exhausted you must be.”
As I said, Philomena talks about some big topics, exploring a real injustice committed by the Catholic church. The Magdalene convents were a real thing, and Philomena Lee was a real person who actually did struggle to find her son. But its clash in tone between cheery odd couple comedy and deep personal drama leaves the film in an mildly uncomfortable middle ground. How much are we supposed to laugh? Coogan is a master – like Ricky Gervais or Larry David – at a certain brand of comedy that tries to wring laughs from the awkward behavior of awful people; I called it “discomfort comedy” above. I rarely find such comedy to be entirely funny, as I’m usually too busy being uncomfortable myself.
The acting is superb (Dench handily waltzes away with the film), and Frears is such a talented director, he can’t help but make a film more interesting. Philomena Lee’s is also a compelling and naturally dramatic story about both injustice and forgiveness. But I’m a little baffled as to why this particular story was nominated for Best Picture. I’m guessing that Judi Dench’s many fans rallied and got her movie propped up, just so more people could see her brilliant performance.
Odds to win 100:1