Rated: R for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references. Reviewed by: Jim Release date: November 22, 2013 Released by: The Weinstein Company
A very endearing, if mawkishly zipping British drama that flashes back and forward between 2002 and 1952 is based on the 2009 investigative book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. It plays a bit like a road picture from London to rural Ireland before coming to America with even a White House stop. It knows how to smooth over the mundane and focus on the crucial in a crowd pleasing way. Even during old footage of one's childhood.
Philomena stars Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (who co-produces and co-writes) in strong character parts; the former in the titular candidly pragmatic one and the latter as the well-judged disgraced government spin doctor, Sixsmith.
Stephen Frears maintains a tonal balance with very little contrivance in a relatively jovial approach that reflects much of the conversation between Philomena and Sixsmith in having a subtle touch with sizable issues. He's bankrolled by a tabloid to take on a 70 year old Irish Catholic woman's plight to locate the son given up for adoption (against her will) nearly a half-century earlier.
Nuns at her former place of employment where she toiled long and hard as a nurse which helped shape her personality actually lead them to a search that indicates that babies were sold to U.S. citizens. A trek across the Atlantic becomes something of an emotional roller coaster.
A snappy rapport between Dench and Coogan (with a little misunderstanding involved) especially going from their initial encounter to an understanding of the influence of one's spirituality adds to the wit and shadings to their characters. You see, Martin is struggling with his faith and has trouble seeing Philomena's attraction to what has affected her life so intimately. The secret to Frears's success here (in his best effort behind the camera since The Queen) is the way he gets Dench to internalize the character with hopes and anguish in a less discernible way that makes it all the more identifiable.
In a way, from the standpoint of past and present some may be reminded of Dench in Iris opposite a winsome Jim Broadbent, though Frears is less solemn and subliminal. Instead of Kate Winslet as the younger Iris there is nice groundwork and continuity of Sophie Kennedy Clark as the joy and melancholy resonate in a shared visage with Dench.
The cinematic viscosity offered by the calm and collected craftsmanship behind the camera extends to Alexandre Desplat's mellifluous score and Robbie Ryan's rather sumptuous lensing. The warmth and care to involving, multifaceted characters can be offhanded and askew in rendering a brassy, arresting true story sensitive to forgiveness, guilt, as well as the existence of God in a harsh world especially in dealing with attitudes towards sex. Because of a very gifted sure-handed director even with ebullient editing Philomena can be uproarious and quite moving particularly because of the perky harmony provided by Dench and Coogan.