Adopt and Adapt
One of the greatest lessons I've learned in my three months as a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association is that there are actually two "Awards Seasons" in the movie biz. For most people, The Oscars, The Golden Globes, The Razzies, etc., are as far off as a reasonable weather forecast. But for critics, 'tis the season to watch absolutely everything--as studios push to get their prize-worthy films on all the right "Year's Best" lists and awards ballots.
I bring this up because, as nice as it is to come home every day to puffy packages stuffed with free movies, it's impossible to watch and review everything (my deadline's Thursday)--much less research the whole stack. More and more, I rely solely on instinct, grabbing whatever looks the most interesting or comes in the brightest package (damn you, lizard brain!).
Last night, I put on Philomena. The screener's cover was that of an odd-couple comedy, showing a laughing Judi Dench sitting next to a mildly exasperated Steve Coogan. Suffice it to say, by the time I got to the horrifying breach-childbirth-in-a-60s'-era-Irish-nunnery scene, I was thoroughly confused and more than a little pissed. I shook off those feelings, though, and settled in for two of the year's most subtle and touching performances--housed in a film that doesn't quite know what to do with them.
Coogan stars as Martin Sixsmith, a disgraced and unemployed BBC reporter who spends his time being uncomfortable around old colleagues and dreaming of writing a book on Russian history--which absolutely no one wants to read. At a cocktail party, a server named Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) asks if he'll help her mother track down her long-lost son. Mom is, of course, Dench, who plays Philomena Lee, a haunted elderly lady who was raised in a harsh convent after giving birth to an illegitimate child. Though they lived in the same complex and had limited visitation for four years, the boy was eventually adopted and whisked away to a better life. Philomena never got to say good-bye.
Martin sells the story to a newspaper, and his cynical editor (Michelle Fairey) hounds him for trumped up angles and sensationalist drama. When pressed, Martin explains to Jane that such human interest stories are generally about "weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people...for weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people". But because it's a gig, he treats Philomena with just enough dignity as to not be insulting, and travels with her to the convent where she spent her teenage years.
The two discover an organization shrouded in secrecy and ruled by doctrine. Philomena is welcomed and politely condescended to, while Martin gets only suspicious glares and cold shoulders. As it turns out, the nuns have every reason to be worried. Despite their claims that a fire destroyed most of the convent's adoption records decades earlier, Martin and Philomena persist, and discover that her son was raised in America.
My description of their journey ends precisely where it truly begins. Like all great mysteries, Philomena is best experienced fresh, and I wouldn't dare spoil the story's two grand revelations (except to say that, no, Martin does not turn out to be Philomena's son). Suffice it to say, Coogan, who co-adapted Sixsmith's book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee", with Jeff Pope, serves up healthy doses of philosophy and morality, disguised as an unconventional road-trip movie. He, of course, gives himself several juicy moments of incredulity towards the Catholic Church and, indeed, God Himself. But Philomena's role is even stronger, turning the idea of the sheltered, religious country girl on its head and offering firm balance to the Sixsmith character's brash, atheistic certainty.
For as much as I'd like to praise the screenplay, it is also the source of Philomena's greatest obstacle: a lack of defined tone. I've already explained how the promo art makes this look like a comedy, but I also recently watched the trailer--and that doesn't fare much better. Sure, movies like this are a hard sell, but that's why figuring out what a project is going to be at the outset is so important. Stephen Frears' film skews more heavily towards the dramatic, which makes the comedic elements feel out of place at least half the time. Perhaps because Dench is such an intelligent actress I had trouble accepting some of her character's ignorance about the wider world (the custom-omelet station at her fancy hotel's breakfast buffet might as well have been an iPhone that makes calls to other dimensions).
All of the drama works, but only some of the comedy approaches that same level of effectiveness. I haven't read Sixsmith's book, so I don't know how much of the screenplay is based on real-life chemistry--and how much was fabricated for the sake of maintaining a crowd-pleasing quality. The end result is a mixed bag that I still highly recommend for the main story and terrific performances. Just know that when Philomena begins her in-depth description of the dime-store romance novel she's reading, you're clear for a quick bathroom break or popcorn refill.