New York Stories – Philomena / Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom


By Glenn Dunks
December 6, 2013

The Manhattan Report: The two films we’re discussing today are an interesting look at the dynamics of awards season. Philomena and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom are two of Harvey Weinstein’s horses in the Oscar race, but he is a smart man and he knows his audiences. Philomena, for instance, was released exclusively into a Madison Avenue cinema that’s known for its masses of blue-rinse ladies in furs taking in a movie before shopping sprees at Tiffany’s and Bloomingdales across the street. Mandela on the other hand, as if foretelling its middling reviews and less identifiable audience, was released into a popular 13-screen multiplex on Broadway hoping to hoodwink unsuspecting mainstream audiences with a prestige drama and Oscar buzz. Both screenings I attended were near sell-outs, so Harvey’s done his job well. Whether they receive their hoped for award nominations, on the other hand, is yet to be determined.


Philomena: Stephen Frears directs movies that are hard to actively dislike. While his more recent titles like The Queen and Mrs. Henderson Presents have tended away from the youthful dynamism of his earlier work, he nonetheless tells compelling stories with a lack of directorial fluff. Such is the case again with Philomena, in which Judi Dench plays a real-life Irishwoman attempting to locate her long-lost son.

With a screenplay by British comedian Steve Coogan, who also co-stars as a journalist writing a story about the old lady’s plight, the tone leans decidedly comedic. Given its mix of Catholic guilt and raunchy gags, it comes across as a mix of The Magdalene Sisters and The Golden Girls. Still, the mileage one gets from Frears’ feature will surely fall squarely on Dench’s shoulders. Despite the laughs that may be derived from the sight of a 79-year-old actress saying things like “bi-curious” with a straight face, the film has an undeniable ability to wring tears out of an audience. Loud weeping will be a likely common occurrence in cinemas screening this real life tale.

What Philomena lacks, however, is anything resembling style, with the camera frequently placed so as to frame the drama in flat and uninteresting ways. At least Alexandre Desplat’s score attempts to give the proceedings a rhythmic quality. I guess in some respects it’s almost commendable of Frears to let the story play out with such a decided lack of melodrama. Dench’s eyes certainly say more than theatrics ever could, and when it focuses on her, Philomena works. However, when it plays up the jokes about elderly sexuality and quirky road trip shenanigans it weakens. The emotional punches that it attempts towards the end don’t always hit with the sort of zeal that one might expect, but the tragedy behind Philomena’s story is one worth exploring that ultimately makes this otherwise minor flick a success.



Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: At least director Justin Chadwick is upfront. His 146-minute Nelson Mandela biopic isn’t called “Mandela: Quick Jaunt to Freedom,” so nobody should go in expecting a brief summation of the South African icon’s life. What’s most disappointing isn’t the length; it’s that Chadwick doesn’t do anything interesting with it. Rather than use Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom to navigate the prickly mechanics of the man’s imprisonment and subsequent rise to political power in a unique way, it distils the legend’s life down to a haphazardly assembled collection of impotent slogans and speeches; the man’s power rendered limp thanks to a screenplay by William Nicholson that treats his life like a chore. It’s a history lesson to be taught rather than experienced.

Idris Elba stars as Mandela, yet for as strong of a presence as Elba is – he surely has the magnetism for a role such as this – his large, hulking frame frequently distracts from what’s around him. When the film isn’t showing off his pumped up biceps in his early years, he’s encased in some of the worst old-age make-up since Armie Hammer was mummified in prosthetics in J. Edgar. South Africa is a nation with powerful stories to be told, and the horrors of Apartheid are rich for cinematic telling. However, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom misses the opportunity to do so. Students, though, will surely relish its cliffs notes reductions of history.


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