"Well, I don't believe in God, and I think he knows it."
One of the hardest tightropes to walk when making a film based on a true story is how much to embellish the facts of the story, and whether or not to give in to the stylistic trappings that bog down most conventional films based upon true events. Stephen Frears' new film Philomena manages to maintain an even and steady handed pace across this tightrope for the bulk of its running time, making it something of an anomaly in this day and age. It presents a story so unbelievable, it could only be true, but it also keeps things honest enough that it makes for an amazingly edifying viewing experience, even when it does fall back on convention in its final minutes.
The film opens with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) a journalist working as Communications Director in the Tony Blair administration, having just been dismissed from his job due to something he said being taken out of context. Martin wanders aimlessly through the days following his dismissal, saying that he's going to write a book on Russian History, though a human interest story lands in his lap and he decides to run with it. He's put in touch with Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) who, as a teenager in Ireland, had birthed a baby while staying at an Abbey. The nuns forced her to work for four years at the Abbey, doing hard labor, while they would watch over her son Anthony.
The nuns were, however, running an adoption program where wealthy Americans could come to the Abbey and adopt these children born out of wedlock. Philomena's son is adopted, along with her friend's younger daughter, and she is given no information on the whereabouts of her son. She hopes that sharing her story with a journalist like Sixsmith will help her to once more get in touch with her long lost son, and the journey that the two embark on together is filled with twists and turns that neither of them could have possibly seen coming.
For the bulk of its running time, Philomena manages to be an engaging and emotional two hander that shirks easy answers and simple conventions. The script, co-written by Coogan and Jeff Pope based on Sixsmith's book, infuses the story with a ton of laughs that make the heavy subject matter that much easier to digest. Coogan is no stranger to the road trip genre, having done the masterful miniseries The Trip with Michael Winterbottom and Rob Brydon a few years back, and he and Pope streamline the narrative down to its barest essentials, making the film fly by in a breezy 98 minutes. But as much as The Weinstein Company has been billing the film as a comedy (it says so right there on the poster), it's got a rather serious agenda on its hands, and I fear that's where it will lose some viewers.
The film makes no bones about being an attack on the devious and deceptive practices of these Abbeys whose actions were more or less endorsed by the Catholic Church. The history of the church's attempts to sweep history under the rug and move on without a second glance back is abhorrent, and the film goes for the jugular in the third act. The much more subtle balancing act of the discussions of faith between Sixsmith and Lee that paper the film's first two acts are much more resonant and resourceful, allowing the audience to engage in their debates between Lee's unwavering faith in the face of despicable behavior by members of the church at her expense, and Sixsmith's agnostic, or even atheistic tendency to write off the collision of church and faith as another system designed to keep people from questioning anything bad that happens to them.
The film ultimately puts the debate to rest with a powerful gesture by Lee in the film's final moments that resolves the more heavy handed moments that preceded it quite nicely, but those looking at the film as an attack on the Catholic Church, from whatever angle they approach it, will find plenty of ammunition here. I was not bothered by the more cloying elements of the film than some might be, but I could have done without the film's overbearing score by Alexandre Desplat, a composer I usually like. The film's score is leading at times, and feels as if it doesn't trust that the audience will feel the full weight of certain moments, sometimes even taking me out of otherwise incredibly powerful scenes in the film.
As for the performances, the two leads are sublimely good. Coogan is able to maintain his usual bitterly sarcastic manner while also sharing glimpses of a man who hides behind that facade because it's the only way he's ever dealt with the world. His softening in the face of a true believer is powerful and makes his somewhat contrived character arc land with more resonance because he plays everything honestly. Dench is fantastic, as always, but here plays against the usual type we've grown accustomed to seeing from her. She settles incredibly well into this woman's skin and never makes you doubt for a moment that you're watching a real woman with a powerfully turbulent inner life. She brings very little to the surface, making the moments in which she does let her emotions get the best of her all the more resounding as a result.
Frears brings a light touch to the proceedings, and always keeps things moving, which truly aids the film's overall demeanor. The way he films the flashbacks and memories like home movies gives the film an emotional resonance and immediacy that will linger with you long after the film is over. He lands so many moments with just the right balance of humor and pathos that it's easy to overlook the more saccharine elements that begin to creep into the narrative as the film goes on. It's a wonderful collision of a great script, great performances and great direction.
Philomena works best when you know as little as possible about its narrative, and in the internet age, it's virtually impossible to escape spoilers, particularly considering it's based on a true story. But I encourage you to go into the film with as little foreknowledge as you can, as the film works best when discovering the secrets and revelations of the story at the same time the characters do. It's a lovely little film that will play great to a variety of audiences, and it's almost always smart enough to buck familiar storytelling trends, making the moments when it does fall victim to them all the more upsetting. Audiences don't get to really discover films anymore, and I encourage you to go discover this one. It's well worth the effort.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Images via ComingSoon]