When I was flying back from England this month, I got to rewatch a film that Iâ€™d forgotten that I really, really like: Philomena. It made me sentimental, so I dug up a review of it that I wrote for a very different website, many moons ago.
I was slightly trepidacious about Philomena- the trailer made it look rather twee and sentimental- which, while not always a bad thing, can be grating.
I was wrong. Philomena is an incredibly well-made film. The performances are brilliant, the script is canny, and, another worry I had which was totally allayed, it never stops; it doesn’t meander about the point as quite a lot of emotion-driven ‘true life’ stories do (I’m looking at you, The Impossible) but every scene leads to the next quite wonderfully, and there’s actually quite a bit of plot. Yay. I like plot.
The real reason I liked Philomena so much, and I know this will sound juvenile at first, so I’m gonna explain myself, is that it has an antagonist. I like antagonists- I know it’s not the vogue in ‘intelligent’ or ‘arthouse’ cinema to have a proper villain, but I think that’s a shame because I feel they add a lot to a story. A character on whom both the audience and the protagonists can focus their efforts in removing or rehabilitating or just hindering for a little while really helps engage me, and, I suspect, a lot of cinema goers. And I need to be engaged: it’s all very well telling an incredibly apropos, intelligent and topical story but if I’m bored you won’t teach me anything and worse, you’ll make your cause look unworthy. This was one of my many problems with Zero Dark Thirty (others being a dull screenplay and Jessica Chastain); the film didn’t put any effort into making the moment of Bin Laden’s death (I refuse to mark that as a spoiler, read a newspaper) into a moment of release for the audience- it just expected us to bring in all our pre-conceived hatred of him. Honestly, it was lazy.
But Philomena delivers on the antagonist front and, while the character is in no way central to the film, it adds a sense of poignancy to the climax and allows for some very deep, and really rather interesting, theological-cum-philosophical debate between the leads about anger. I’m not ashamed to say I was riveted.
There is a real sense of sadness pervading this film, which makes sense when you think about it. There is a tragedy in the background of all the events which cannot be undone and cannot be ignored, which, I think, is as it should be- although the film does not shy away from discussing the pros and cons of holding onto indignation or just letting it pass. It contains some exceedingly interesting debates about religion and morality, and while these are hardly new philosophies to be exploring, it does so with aplomb.
A special word should be said about Dench, who, unsurprisingly, is very talented. But what’s remarkable is how much I believed her as a run-of-the-mill, everyday woman; Dench is rather glamorous in real life, but you don’t watch her thinking about the incredibly un-humdrum life she leads, but just completely believe that, were it not for the plot, she’d be sitting at home watching David Attenborough. She’s natural to a level that is quite astounding.
I can’t really find much to fault about the piece:there’s no element that stands out as poorly crafted or problematic. Philomena could easily have been a two hour TV movie with about thirty minutes of actual content and an awful lot of padding, but instead it’s an absorbing and witty feature that delivers in terms of characters, plot and pathos.