Thursday, February 20, 2014

6 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching "Philomena"

1. What a shocker! Judi Dench owns another onscreen character based on an actual person (following England Queens Victoria and Elizabeth I and Dame Iris Murdoch) and gets an Oscar nomination for her effort. She was Philomena Lee, a woman searching for the son who was taken from her and put up for adoption by a group of duplicitous Irish-Catholic nuns nearly 50 years earlier. On a list of 1 to 5, I'd put her at No. 2, right behind her Notes on a Scandal costar Cate Blanchett as my favorite of the five Best Actress Oscar nominees, though I wouldn't be surprised if she was actually the fifth-placer who cost Emma Thompson her nomination for Saving Mr. Banks by nabbing the British-thespian slot.

But for all her Philomena-ness, I still had trouble buying Dame Dench, who exudes intelligent, knowing, savvy and upscale, as a "little old Irish lady." Every time Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, holding his own with the legend, but much like Will Forte opposite Bruce Dern in Nebraska, not receiving enough critical credit for it), the journalist assisting and covering Philomena's search, referred to her thusly, I found myself thinking, Who's he calling old?

At 79, Dench has an unmistakable spring in her step, and she could still pass for at least 10 years younger, which I suppose is around the age that the real-life Philomena Lee, a former teenage mom, must have been in 2002, when the film is set. Compared to jaded Martin, who is decades younger chronologically, Philomena, despite the hard knocks that life had handed her, still had a youthful sense of wonder and a capacity for enthusiasm and finding joy in the smallest things. I'd so go on holiday with her.

2. And clearly she'd go on vacation with me. I loved her reaction to finding out the sexual orientation of her biological son because it was "Why, of course!" matter-of-fact acceptance rather than PFLAG-waving or the expected "Would he have turned out differently if I had raised him?" angst. "Well, he was a very sensitive little boy," she recalled. "And as the years rolled on, I always wondered whether he might be. When I saw a photograph of him in the dungarees, there was no doubt in my mind." All mothers of gay sons should be so observant.

3. Have you noticed how more TV shows (Girls and Looking, to name two that are continuing the Desperate Housewives-launched TV trend of the last decade or so) and movies these days are combining comedy and drama in such a way that makes categorization a near-impossible task? Was Nebraska a comedy or a drama? What about The Wolf of Wall Street? American Hustle? Of the nine Best Picture Oscar nominees, I'd say that only three -- 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips and Gravity -- struck me as being full-on dramatic films.

Philomena often walked a fine line between tear-jerking and laughter-inducing. But unlike a funnyish drama like Her, which was beautifully written but whose characters spoke the way complicated fictional people talk, as if they're forever reclining on an analyst's couch (sort of like the Girls girls, who are always navel-gazing and saying the sort of clever things that people never say in real life), the conversations in Philomena sound like ones earthlings actually have, sometimes clumsy, sometimes pointless, sometimes just intended to fill empty silences (which is one of the few things I like about Looking).

4. Restrained direction (by Stephen Frears, who previously directed Dench to a Best Actress Oscar nomination for 2005's Mrs Henderson Presents), a moving Oscar-nominated score (courtesy of Alexandre Desplat, who seems to have been behind every film score I've noticed over the last few years, with the exception of All Is Lost's), and an exceptional supporting cast, especially Mare Winningham, who really ought to be working in films more.

If I hadn't gotten the movie's subtle and not-so-subtle points about the differences between Americans and Brits (yeah, we get it, Americans are obese!), Winningham's terse but unsophisticated cordiality, her flat, slightly dumpy disposition (it's as if her personality, like the woman herself, is dressed for casual Fridays), would have told me everything I needed to know: No need for stuffy, artificial formalities, let's just get to the point. That's so American.

5. Ouch. The movie was almost as tough on journalists as it was on judgmental, hypocritical nuns. The fine folks of my profession were characterized as arrogant, pretentious and entitled nobs who throw our job title around as if that somehow makes us better people or who wear false modesty on our sleeves. "That's BBC News, actually -- but not anymore," Sixsmith says (when Philomena dares to associate him with News at 10), as if to really say, "Please, no autographs." Hmm... I've known a few like that. Maybe I've even seen one occasionally when I look in the mirror. When Martin dismissed the waitress in the hotel restaurant for interrupting his "private conversation" with her entirely unnecessary "Can I help you?" phoniness, I thought, That's so me.

6. But there's no denying the power of the almighty word. I was incensed by Philomena's willingness to forgive -- my friend Nancy, who loved the movie, complained about the screenplay's problematic sanitizing of poor people, and this might qualify -- but I believe her motive in eventually allowing Martin to tell her story was purely punitive. Thank God for the emergence of a vengeful streak, or we wouldn't have this quietly powerful movie.
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