Saturday, January 4, 2014

Philomena review

This year has seen an awards season that is especially competitive. I know that I seem to say that every year, but this year I mean it. 2013 has seen a ton of great films. From American Hustle and Captain Phillips to 12 Years A Slave and Gravity, this awards season is going to be a fight to the finish. And those are just the big films. There are many smaller films like Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis and Dallas Buyers Club that are fighting for awards attention. Another one of those films is The Weinstein Company's drama Philomena. This is a film that would be a top contender in a much less competitive year. It's a film that appeals directly to the Academy, but unlike recent Oscar bait like Saving Mr. Banks, Philomena has an emotionally involving story that's full of surprises. Mix that with a couple of great performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan and you've got a pretty good movie on your hands.

Philomena tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) and the titular character, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). When Philomena's daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) learns that her mother had given birth to a son fifty years ago, she is shocked. She stumbles into Martin, a journalist who just became unemployed, at a party and tells him Philomena's story. He reluctantly agrees to meet with Philomena at a cafe. The two meet and try to uncover the truth about Philomena's son, who was taken from her by the nuns in Ireland. A mystery unfolds and Philomena and Martin journey to America to find her long-lost son. 

I guess 2013 was the year of films that walked the line of drama and comedy very closely. I consider Philomena to be a drama, but I can see why someone would consider it a comedy. Like American Hustle and Saving Mr. Banks, it has a plethora of hilarious moments, but it manages to pack in a lot of intense emotional content as well. Philomena walks this line very well and never crosses too far into comedic territory. It's a compelling drama with some very entertaining moments, an interesting story, and a couple of twists for good measure. If you thought that the trailer gave the whole movie away, you're wrong. Philomena has plenty of surprises in store. One of those surprises is just how good it is. 

Philomena doesn't have a huge ensemble cast like other awards contenders. It focuses mostly on the two main characters. Philomena and Martin are at the forefront of this film for most of its runtime. And both characters are played to perfection by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. Philomena is the far more interesting character, and Dench's performance contributes to that. Dench gives Philomena several intriguing quirks and makes her a very interesting character. I'm not sure if she can top some of the other heavyweights at the Oscars, but she certainly has her share of Oscar moments in the film. Coogan also provides some comic relief in his role and he plays Martin well. I wouldn't say that either performance is amazing, but their chemistry together is fantastic. 

The performances are great and the chemistry between the leads is spectacular, but the film is made great by its story. Philomena's story is incredibly engaging from start to finish. The film doesn't shy away from emotionally tough subject material, but it manages to entertain and engage you throughout. The story is actually a bit of a mystery, and one that keeps you guessing. Philomena is also a very funny film. Dench and Coogan each get memorable lines and the tone and pace keep the film alive constantly. This film never became boring. Unlike Saving Mr. Banks, Philomena gets its flashbacks done early and makes them as concise and emotionally involving as possible. The rest is devoted to the journey Philomena and Martin take. That was a smart move by director Stephen Frears. 

The screenplay by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan is a terrific balancing act. I wouldn't be surprised to see this film's screenplay become a strong contender for adapted screenplay. Coogan and Pope balance the weighty aspects of this film with a lot of wit and charm. It's a great screenplay. On another note, I didn't particularly notice Stephen Frears direction, but there were some interesting shots.

The use of flashbacks in Philomena is incredibly effective. It shows you the pain and tragedy of the character's past without spending too much time on it. The flashbacks are filmed in a grainy style, which differentiate the flashbacks from the actual film. They worked very well and established all the facts that we needed to know.

I've sort of struggled to write this review. I feel like I'm straining for words in this one. I very much enjoyed Philomena and have nothing but good things to say about it. However, there just isn't a lot to comment on beyond the cast and the story. Philomena is a very good film that everyone can get a bit of enjoyment out of. It has pretty much everything that you might want in a film this time of year. It's sad that Philomena didn't come out in a less competitive year, because I believe that it truly could have been a major Oscar contender. But for now, it'll have to settle on being in a few categories. Still, awards attention or not, this is a film worth seeking out. It's funny, well shot, well acted and has a touching and engaging story. This is a film that more people should go see, and it's disappointing to me that more people haven't. It's a film that everyone can connect to in one way or another. That's a pretty cool accomplishment.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                            (8.5/10)

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