Philomena (2013)

Director:  Stephen Frears
Cast:  Judi DenchSteve CooganSophie Kennedy Clark
Plot:  A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman's search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Nom. for 4 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Leading Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score.  Won Best Screenplay & 8 other awards and nom. for Golden Lion (Venice).
Runtime:  98min
Rating:  NC16 for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references.

“I forgive you because I don't want to remain angry.”

The star of the picture is Judi Dench, the great and evergreen veteran actress who makes acting so effortless and involving.  Her performance here in Philomena is uniformly excellent, despite being one of subtlety.  There are few scenes that show the acting range of Dench, but she remains engrossing throughout, and forms a delightful partnership with Steve Coogan. 

Now, Coogan is a man of many roles – he is the co-writer, co-producer and the lead actor of Philomena.  He plays an uncompromising journalist who is sacked, but finds himself pursuing an unlikely human interest story in Philomena (Dench).  It is a tragic (and also true) story, but there are surprises in store for those unfamiliar with its trajectory.

Directed by Stephen Frears, who is most famous for helming The Grifters (1990), High Fidelity (2000) and The Queen (2006), Philomena is very much a conventional Brit drama with a nice sprinkle of comedy.  Coogan's character is sarcastic though not bad-hearted.  To offer to help an old woman to find her long lost son, a child who was taken away from her fifty years ago, already says much about him. 

Although this is not intentioned as a mystery, it somewhat works as a bit piece of investigative journalism wrapped inside a box of emotions.  Philomena is a movie about guilt and memories, possibly resentment, but also of forgiveness.  It is also an understated film that works its way to your heart.  Personally I feel it is less emotionally powerful than its premise may suggest, though it is remains to be a bittersweet experience.

There are religious themes, particularly on sin and punishment that are related to the Catholic faith.  Through a series of flashbacks early on in the film, we find out that Philomena has suffered from the actions of those who act in the name of God.  But she seeks the truth not for closure, but for something more telling, that of reconciliation. 

The movie asks us not to judge those who may have sinned against us, but to understand and come to terms with the past.  Director Frears does give the film a heavy religious slant, but this doesn't impede in any way how this beautiful picture works out both narratively and dramatically, even if it falls short of being a truly memorable film.

Verdict:   An understated, though not-so-powerful drama with a performance of subtlety by the great Judi Dench.


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