By Glenn Dunks
December 5, 2013
(Republished April 23, 2014)
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.
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.
Philomena will be available on Quickflix from April 30, 2014.