Saturday, March 1, 2014


I Dream in 8MM Home Movies
Driving Miss Philomena

Stephen Frears' film of Philomena, from Steve Coogan's co-written screenplay (he's also the second hand of what is basically a two actor piece) feels awfully precious in the viewing, even if the story, overall, is a fascinating detective story about faith and family, over the repressive dictates of a religion giving lip-service to both.

Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is an ex-reporter, recently exited from Tony Blair's Labour government over an internal squabble. At a loss over what to do next, and considering writing a history of Russia (which meets with indifference whenever mentioned), he's approached at a party by a bar-maid, who tells him the story of her mother, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who has been searching fruitlessly for the whereabouts of her son, born fifty years earlier. Lee was a good Catholic girl who got pregnant, and her Irish father, in anger and shame and for bringing dishonor to the family, gave her to the nuns of the Rose Crea Abbey for the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, who put her to work, delivered her child, provided an orphanages for that child and required Philomena to work for the nuns for the next four years to repay her debt.

At some point, her son, Anthony, was adopted, and never seen again. And Philomena is haunted by him fifty years on. Sixsmith is cool to the idea of "doing a story" on it, dismissive, in fact, saying it was "human interest"—the kind of work reporters do "about weak-minded, ignorant people for equally weak-minded, ignorant people.'  

But, nobody is acting too excited about that Russian history.

Sixsmith agrees to meet Philomena and finds her a little dotty, a little marmish, and not very sophisticated. But, he's got interest in her story, so he takes a trip with her to the abbey to, once again, try and get some more information about Anthony and what became of him. All records have been destroyed in a fire, they're told, and Sixsmith finds the abbey more than unhelpful in giving an information.

It isn't long before they get some information through Sixsmith's government connections in the UK and the U.S. To say any more from that point spoils the movie, and that's the best part of the film. The actors are great, their characters at points supportive and contentious, clashing personalities on almost any topic.

But, it feels slight, and vaguely insulting to the Philomena character. In particular, there is a long episode in an airport where she prattles on about a book she's read that Sixsmith would consider "trash" ("Oh, look, it's a series!" he mocks.) It's supposed to be whimsical and charming—isn't she a delight and isn't he a curmudgeon—and the movie has nowhere to go at the end but reiterate the same joke, rather than to say something meaningful or profound at the end.
* It's a movie for "blue hairs" at the matinee, and aspires to nothing more. But, the performances are terrific, the story interesting, and Frears' direction serviceable, except for some lily-gilding of flash-backs and other things that might be in the service of "over-explaining."

Of all the Best Picture nominees, this is the one that feels a bit out of place.

Dame Judi Dench and Philomena Lee

* Actually, it does, but T.S. Eliot said it: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started... and know the place for the first time.”

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