Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.
The Magdalene laundries have been covered in a previous film though this one, based on The Lost Child of Philomena Lee goes into details not covered in the previous film, and besides that only uses the history of the Catholic church’s enforced servitude of young as the backdrop for, despite some touching sequences, what is essentially a road trip buddy film. A journalist played by Steve Coogan, who also wrote the script, finds himself staying with the titular Philomena, an elderly woman whose son was taken from her by the church when he was four years old. Coogan is a person used to the ritzy life of an international government correspondent; Philomena is working class and given to entertainments including a sort of British novel so junky I haven’t even encountered one in my more than two years of buying and selling used books-I suppose the closest US analogue from what could be discerned by Philomena’s endless descriptions in the film would be Harlequin romance novels.
Coogan, who also wrote the script, derives a lot of humor from the high-low class pairing. That this humor doesn’t seem to come at Philomena’s expense as much as at the expense of Coogan’s journalist and his silly pretenses is an admirable achievement. His depiction of the process of journalism gets across much of the awkwardness of it that doesn’t usually come across in most other journalism films. The most awkward part of the work is having seen a lot of things, having a necessary edginess, but having to deal in long stretches with members of the public you never would interact with socially. Maybe some sort of film could be made about a journalist covering Occupy coming to a similar sort of odd couple friendship. Seeing Coogan’s initial revulsion at Philomena’s way of life most prominently reminded me of the early NY Times articles on OWS. Of course it would be a fairy tale. This film is in many ways a fairy tale. Most narrative films are.
The direction by Stephen Frears is in some respects well done but in many others cluelessly inept. As with most films involving journalism the action largely consists of people sitting and talking. This poses a certain problem for the director in finding some sort of way to make this visually interesting. Frears gets right that a scene of talking lives or dies with the actors, and lets Coogan and Dench do what they need to do with little noticeable interference, perhaps too little interference as he sometimes allows, nay, indulgences in the more cliched and sentimental elements of Dench’s “feisty old lady” performance, and on more than one occasion, especially noticeable for myself having seen this in a theater, we’re treated to a 20 foot tall extreme close-up of Judi Dench making her best archetypal “old lady about to cry” face that most closely resembles a clown mask.
In avoiding the shot-reverse shot death trap Frears falls into another problem, the problem of weird shifting tilting but smooth shots of the principles talking, the cumulative rhythm eventually giving the sense of staring at the ocean with the attached dangers of seasickness.
Whoever played Philomena’s dead son in the footage is brilliant. His performance is one-note in the way that people in home videos actually are. He sacrifices depth for a shocking neglected aspect of realism.