Monday, December 16, 2013

Philomena (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


This is one instance where the Catholic Church does not fare too well. But more importantly, it is also one of the few films where Religion is debated openly, yet given a light, (and sometimes a gallows humor ) nudge when needed.

"Philomena", a new work by Stephen Frears, details the true life drama of an Irish woman Philomena Lee  (Judi Dench) and her quest to find her lost son many decades later. Philomena had a illicit rumpus when she was very young. Because she was exiled by her family, Philomena joined a convent. The Mother Superior took control of the birth and the child, Anthony, and sold the toddler to an American family.

In one of the most heartrending flashback sequences in current cinema, we see owlish white tailed nuns as they neutrally administer to the teen Philomena with brusque officiousness. These episodes are swift with menace and doom and echo the best of Gothicism. Philomena has no idea that her sweet infant is about to be blatantly stolen by the convent, for the petty reason that the child is affectionately attached to his toddler friend Mary.

Philomena's sister has a chance encounter with a down and out journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who, having no options for rapid employment, reluctantly agrees to write the pining mother's story.

What follows are a rollicking series of  quippy meetings which evolve into a thoughtful road trip. Sixsmith is a reserved and cynical pessimist while Philomena is a kind hearted openly affectionate older lady knocked about by tragedy.

There is much banter and comic bits exchanged that arise from the juxtaposition of the ultra-serious Martin and  by the ebullient Philomena that recall the easing films "Quartet" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" with various pop culture references about TV and social mores. But Dench's role has decidedly more meat. Her emotional pendulum between gravity, sadness and joyful comedy is refreshingly authentic. If you have been bogged down by the dearth of films that feature aging folks having a silly old time and carrying on with Casanova attitudes and dancing in various rediscoveries, take heart. You will not find a lunatic scream or a sudden outbreak of geriatric revelry anywhere. Philomena is a full fleshed person illustrating terrible  pain and a buoyant spirit at once.

Steve Coogan (who is also the film's writer and producer) is superb in shuffling off his comical persona as a nebbish man who is stuck in third gear. Here, he is a straight arrow, a somewhat introverted but altogether passionate man who has definite humanist ideals, railing with fire against religion. Coogan's repartee in defense of non-belief contain some of the best returns on matters of theology ever found in a so-called "comedy" film.

 Philomena's battle of the heart is not to find her lost adult son, but ultimately to reconcile herself to the scheming and unethical realities of this quaint Irish convent.

This story may seem a bit melodramatic and it is, but its twists and turns rival "The Dragon Tattoo" tales and the film never wallows in false Gothicisms.

The trick of "Philomena" is that it combines the warmth and quirk of Coogan's appearance in "The Trip" with a string of Catholic subterfuges that would make Dan Brown blush and hide in a habit. Yet instead of going for ephemeral entertainment, the film has the smartness to settle down and relate a very human story of two people who finally shed their spiritual dualities with one another.

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