Principal Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Barbara Jefford, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Kate Fleetwood, Mare Winningham, Michelle Fairley, Anna Maxwell Martin, Simone Lahbib, Cathy Belton, Charlie Murphy, Amy McAllister, Sean Mahon, Peter Hermann.
Synopsis: An out-of-work journalist helps an elderly woman track down the son she gave up for adoption some fifty years earlier.
Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome Dan O’Neil from Dan The Man’s Movie Reviews to our hallowed pages. Philomena marks his first review with us; we hope you enjoy it, and please feel free to compliment him in the comments section below!
Wanna see some REAL “evil nuns“? You’re welcome.
After failing in his ill-advised decision to be a politician, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) decides to return to the world that he knows he’ll safe be in, considering he’s practically been in an expert in it for 20+ years: Journalism. However, Sixsmith isn’t the type of journalist who goes out there and writes fluff for the mainstream. No siree! In fact, the type of writer he is an important one that gets straight to the facts, and doesn’t leave anything dangling. But all that changes once Sixsmith is given the opportunity to cover a “human interest story” concerning one Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). The story is simply this: When Philomena was a young and confused girl, she got knocked up. Seems normal, right? Well, at the time, she was an orphan who had a bunch of nuns breathing down her neck for every simple act she committed, which meant that she could either a.) take the kid and leave the orphanage, or b.) leave the kid at the orphanage to be looked at adoptive parents, while she still lived and worked at the orphanage, giving her the chance to see her kid every once and awhile. She decided to go with Option B, but it wasn’t before long until her own boy was snatched up from her, with little to no idea of who this family was, or even where they went. 50 years later, Philomena and Martin go out to discover the truth, which sadly, isn’t only just Philomena’s story, either.
There’s been a lot of talk, a lot of hype and a lot of buzz surrounding this movie and quite frankly, I don’t get it. Sure, it’s got two supreme, British heavy-weights in the forms of Steve Coogan and Dame Judi Dench in the lead roles, and is even a true-life story, but does that really mean it deserves all of the praise it’s been getting? Actually, let me rephrase that: Does it REALLY deserve an 89% (so far) on Rotten Tomatoes?!?!
HELL TO THE NO!!
But then again, I can see why.
Basically, here’s a movie that caters to the late-Holiday, Oscar-bait viewing audience: It ruffles some feathers, but features pleasant, happy-going thoughts about finding yourself, embracing your past, as well as not blaming any others for your problems that you’ve had before, or the ones that you have now. Wow! Wait a ticket! Didn’t that last one seem a bit negative to you? Well, that’s because it is.
What this movie does, and does well, if you choose to see it the way I did, was that it presents a view of these nuns in such a despicable, one-sided way, that the movie lost almost all credibility from me. Don’t be fooled, I am no heavy-duty Catholic that prays to God everyday before I go to bed, or wake up for school, or never misses Sunday Mass, however, I know an unfair viewpoint when I see one, and that’s what I see here. First of all, I don’t think anybody took into account the idea that not only were these nuns giving these girls a second chance at life, but made sure that they did actually get to see their kids. And heck, didn’t the nuns give these girls a choice to begin with? Sure, the girls could have easily left the orphanage without a place to eat, sleep or live at, and the extra-baggage of a newborn could have only added insult to injury, but it’s still the risk you take, right?
The fact that this movie brings this point up, but doesn’t really have much to say about it really ticked me off. Hear me out, I am in no way condoning these nuns for what it was that they did to these girls and to their children, however, that doesn’t get me past the fact that this movie doesn’t realize how hateful it sounds. Makes sense to make the Catholic church the enemy here, that’s totally understandable actually, but it doesn’t try to even come close to explaining their side of the story, or even the benefits one might have made from this decision to stick around the orphanage while the kids themselves were put-up for adoption.
I know plenty of you out there are already thinking how much of a terrible, distasteful human-being I truly am, but seriously, you know there’s a problem with your movie when you have nothing more to show for it other than a bunch of scenes in which both Judi Dench and Steve Coogan just do whatever comes to their mind first. And there’s actually nothing really wrong with that, because they’re both pros, but considering that’s the only aspect of this movie has to fall back-on, those scenes together between them both get real old, real quick and start to make you see all of the other problems with this flick.
Though the trailers and heck, even the poster up-above, may have you fooled into thinking that is a somewhat fun, hilarious, witty road-trip between two of Britain’s most famous beings of the big-screen (only the latter is true), the movie is totally different. It is a drama, and a very dark one at that, which I do applaud because it goes to some areas that I didn’t in the least bit expect it to end-up. But as dark as a movie can and wants to be, it has to be able to save it all by transition well between both sides of the story, and that is not what this does. Whenever there is supposed to be a moment made for comedic-effect, the movie relies on Dench to say something silly, or somewhat daft, just to show you that she’s an little ole’ cute lady, that you’re supposed to feel bad for no matter what mistakes she may, or may not have made in the past.
And while Philomena, the character, gets by mainly on Dench’s performance, you still can’t help but think what would have been if there was more attention to the script and the simple mechanics of the plot. I get that this story was adapted from a book, that was apparently based on a true-story, but for some odd reason, a lot of this just rang false to me, as if it was just Philomena going on the trip all by herself in real-life, but producers realized they needed a witty, sarcastic Brit along with her for the ride, so just call up Steve Coogan I guess, right?
Well, not to anybody’s surprise, Coogan ends up being the best thing about this movie, despite his character being one that’s quite frequently looked-down upon from this movie. Coogan does his usual dead-pan, dickish-like act where he says things that aren’t supposed to be funny, but because he’s such an uncomfortable asshole to be around, you can’t help but chuckle at him. However, Coogan does take this character a step-further in showing us a guy who is actually coming to realize that there’s more brewing beneath the surface of this story than ever before, and while he may not still care too much for “human interest” stories, he cares enough for Philomena to the point of where he wants her to be okay, once they find her boy and get a chance to talk to him. Though the movie definitely has an anti-journalistic mentality about itself going on here, it’s Coogan’s journalist-character whom ends up being the most interesting and believable.
As for Philomena, well, that’s why Judi Dench was cast in the first place, and as good as she is, even her amazing talents can’t save this gal from being just another simple, old woman who loves life, appreciates it all for what it’s worth and loves to throw wisdom down other people’s throats whenever she feels like it. I guess those type of old women are considered “cute”, and not the types you want to send away to a home in hopes of benefiting from the family house?
Coogan and Dench do slightly save Philomena from a very painful, uncomfortable death, but the script’s pit-falls into drama, religion, comedy, homosexuality, sex, lies and no videotape, never work or even seem believable, despite this apparently being a “true story”. I’m doubting that one.