Exceeding Expectations

Main Cast: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench

Director: Stephen Frears

Often to a surprising degree, expectations can be a significant factor in how much I enjoy a movie.  In this case, the one sentence summary – a true story about an old Irish woman looking for the son she gave up for adoption fifty years ago – didn’t have me quivering with anticipation.  No superheroes, no murderous psychopaths, no dramatic battle scenes.  But despite its less than thrilling premise, Philomena packs an astonishingly powerful punch, turning out to be one of my favorite movies of 2013.

British journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is in the midst of a mid-life career crisis, when he comes across the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who has recently revealed to her family that she gave up a son for adoption in her teens.  Fifty years ago, following an innocent tryst and subsequent pregnancy, Philomena was sent to Sean Ross Abbey in Ireland by her devout Catholic father, where she delivered her son Anthony and lived with other young mothers, all hidden away and punished for the sin of fornication.  Allowed a brief visit with her son each day, Philomena developed a strong motherly attachment to him despite her young age, until he was suddenly given away to adoptive parents, without warning or even a chance to say goodbye.  Increasingly haunted by this loss, present day Philomena is driven by a strong desire to find him, driven more by concern about his welfare than by idle curiosity.  Intrigued and interested in the journalistic opportunity the story represents, Sixsmith decides to help.  The movie goes on to document their search, as they travel back to Ireland and on to America in their search for any trace of the boy, now man.

In the title role, Dench is consistently amazing, displaying a laser-like sharpness that belies her 78 years.  Deftly balancing Catholic guilt with intense anger and grief, she believably portrays Philomena’s daily sense of loss, spanning an entire lifetime.   Frequently allowed to carry the story with her facial expressions alone, Dench successfully brings the woman’s inner strength to the screen, while also delivering plenty of comic relief as she visits America for the first time.

Against long odds, Steve Coogan holds his own against one of the most accomplished female actresses of all time.  Given that his most memorable previous movie appearances are small parts in Tropic Thunder and Night at the Museum, who could have expected anything out of him?  With surprising dramatic delicacy, he manages to sympathetically and convincingly portray a thoroughly complex character, variously displaying Sixsmith’s Oxbridge snobbery, hot-headed religious skepticism, heart-felt compassion and journalistic opportunism without missing a step.

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen) gets the most out of both actors, allowing them to build a remarkable chemistry that carries the film.  He excels at creating powerful dramatic tension, by letting the movie be rather quiet at times.  He also uses numerous flashbacks and plenty of fully convincing “archival” footage to great dramatic effect, never fumbling the many complicated transitions.

Based on the 2009 book by Sixsmith, Coogan also wrote the screenplay, assisted by Jeff Pope.  Giving the writing duties for this often wrenching drama to a man whose entire writing resume consists of a bunch of silly British TV comedies seems entirely preposterous at first glance, but I think it might be the main reason I like the movie so much.  In purely dramatic hands, the story could easily have turned out to be depressing or maudlin, but with Coogan’s comic touch it becomes an emotionally inspiring work that’s surprisingly funny at times.  The delicate balance of tragedy and comedy makes for much more interesting characters and a truly entertaining movie.

Cinematographer Robbie Ryan creates a great looking film, particularly at the abbey and in Washington, DC.  He’s ably assisted by composer Alexandre Desplat, whose score (which you can purchase below) provides plenty of dramatic support without becoming overly intrusive.

Carried by the unexpectedly strong chemistry of the primary actors and a terrific screenplay, Philomena is a powerful drama that explores the never ending conflict of faith and skepticism, motivated by yet another moral lapse by the Catholic Church.  Not nearly as depressing as you might imagine it to be, I strongly recommend it as a 2013 Oscar Best Picture Nominee not to be missed.


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