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Film Critic for Twin Cities Live

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Movie Review: PHILOMENA

Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon

It was this same time last year that I was enamored with Judi Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Skyfall. The grand dame is at it again with another exceptional performance to add to her long resume. I am hoping her role as Philomena Lee nabs her another Oscar nomination. Philomena (Clark) gets pregnant at a young age and is forced to deliver the baby at a Catholic abbey in Roscrea, Ireland. She is forced to live and work at the abbey with limited contact with her son, Anthony. When Anthony is three years old, he is sold with another girl to a young couple in the United States. Philomena is heartbroken at the loss of her child not knowing if she will ever see him again.

For the past fifty years, Philomena (Dench) has not stopped looking for her son. She opens up to her daughter Jane (Martin) about the son she was forced to give up as a young girl which she has kept a secret all these years. At a party Jane meets Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a former BBC correspondent who was recently fired from his position in the Civil Service under Tony Blair. Martin is now a freelance writer who cannot seem to decide on his next project. Jane tells Martin about Philomena's story and the never-ending search for her son. Feeling pressured for work from his editor, he decides to take on this "human interest" story. Martin's interest in her story grows as their journey for her son continues and takes them from the Roscrea to Washington, DC.

When you have a movie like this that is based on a true story, the tone of the film is vital. Stephen Frears' (The Queen, Dangerous Liasons) sharp direction knows how to keep this story on point without ever reaching a sappy Lifetime "Made for TV Movie of the Week" feel to it. Coogan penned the screenplay which is adapted from Sixsmith's novel "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee". The script is poignant, heartfelt, and funny as it explores not only Philomena's search for her son, but the relationship between her and Martin. They are both two very different people with very different outlooks on life. He is an atheist who has become a tad bitter and pessimistic about life. Despite her hardships, she has a slightly naive, positive, cheery outlook on life. You can tell her past has made her a stronger person who still has faith in God and the church, which is hard for Martin to understand. There is a patience that Martin has to have with her when their journey first begins but they both have so much to learn from each other.

The words "Inspired by a true story" are mentioned at the beginning of the movie which usually means it is loosely taken from true events but the majority of the movie is made up for dramatic purposes. From what I have read and heard about this story, the film stays very close to what actually happened. Both Dench and Coogan were able to meet the real Philomena Lee and Martin Sixsmith so there is a care and truthfulness that is told to the story. Rumors of Dame Judi Dench retiring from acting made headlines last year when she announced she had macular degeneration. She has noted that she is no longer able to read scripts but balks at the idea of her retirement. Thank God! From what she has stated in interviews, Coogan read his entire script to her, and she accepted the part right after he was done reading it. There is a sweeter, more innocent side to Dench that comes across here. Since she is the master that she is, she makes it all look so effortless. Doing an Irish accent is not easy, and it flows beautifully from her. This is a departure for Coogan as he is known more for his comedy, yet he seems quite comfortable taking on a dramatic role especially opposite Dench.

I knew after I first saw the trailer that I was going to love this movie. I know I should not go into a movie with such grand expectations, but this is Judi Dench we are talking about. She is one of my acting goddesses. Throw in some Catholic nuns and Ireland and it felt like I was thrown right back into my childhood at a Catholic school. The nuns at my school did not seem nearly as harsh as these nuns as the era of cruel nun abuse at schools was over by the time I entered grade school. Philomena's story is fascinating and heartbreaking at times. It is hard not to get frustrated at the Catholic Church for their continual lies and deception. You hope that other families and mothers are able to find their children who were forced from them at an early age. Philomena Lee, who despite all of that, is able to show forgiveness and hold onto her faith. She is one hell of an inspiration.

RATING: **** 1/2 (4.5 out of 5 stars)

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