Review: Judi Dench on touching form in reductive but effective 'Philomena'

Stephen Frears' true-life drama brings the house down in Venice

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<p>Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in &quot;Philomena.&quot;</p>

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in "Philomena."

Credit: The Weinstein Company

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Knocked up after a first, ecstatic sexual encounter at a fairground in rural West Ireland in the early 1950s, the teenaged Philomena (played with spare, trembling power by Sophie Kennedy Clark) is bundled into an Asylum, and made to sign over her imminent child to the Church’s care. After a difficult birth – “The pain is her penance,” hisses hatchet-faced nun and chief villain Sister Hildegard (Barbara Jefford) – Philomena is permitted daily visitation rights to her son Anthony. Three years later, the Church sells him, together with another inmate’s daughter, to a wealthy childless couple from the States.

This is the last Philomena knows, her subsequent enquiries over the decades having been rebuffed by the Asylum staff – who trust that the naive, God-fearing woman will take accept the Church’s profession of ignorance. Faced with the enquiries of even a slumming Sixsmith, however, the case is blown open far more efficiently, and it’s not long before the journalist and his sweet-natured new meal ticket are on Anthony’s trail in Washington D.C.

It’d teeter on spoiler territory to offer further details of their investigation – though it’s with each subsequent revelation that Philomena reveals herself to be rather a more complex, socially advanced being than the Harlequin-reading rube the rest of the film makes her out to be. Her attitude toward sex, having been punished so severely for it herself, is particularly intriguing, even if the script can resist making several limp old-woman-talking-dirty jokes at her expense.

Indeed, the whole film seems rather too amused by Philomena, repeatedly ribbing her as a kind of holy innocent, whose sense of perma-wonder extends even to the complimentary mint on her hotel room pillow. Neither is it a character approach that sits particularly well with Dench’s touching, finely etched performance: not an actress naturally given to playing dumb, her more intelligent read on Philomena is of a woman at once aware of her limitations, and not entirely aware of where others presume her limitations to be. Scenes that require Philomena to be dimly garrulous or blowsy therefore don’t quite ring true – she certainly can’t utter the Irishism “feckin’ eejit” with much conviction. It’s the ones where her reactions don’t meet with narrative expectation – as in a particularly moving, underplayed faceoff with the withered Sister Hildegard – that give the film its grace notes (and Dench, I expect, her seventh Oscar nomination).

There certainly aren’t any being provided by Alexandre Desplat’s dismayingly terrible score, which underwrites the film’s every more subtly expressed emotion with twee, tinkly Oirishisms and sickly arpeggios that might best be described as aural human interest. That Frears could pair Ryan’s lovely imagery – more subdued in the film’s latter-day stretches, but still lit with delicate acuity – with a score of such pile-driving lilt suggests he, too, wasn’t quite sure how to play the script’s searching personal narrative with its blandly reductive comic relief. It’s a story rich enough to win the battle, as proved by the thundering applause that greeted its first press screening at Venice this morning, but not without the shaping it professes to find so undignified.

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Guy Lodge
Critic
Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.
2013-2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
UPDATED: MARCH 2, 2014