Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review: "Philomena" is a Problematic Narrative About Child Loss

Left to right: Judi Dench and Steve Coogan
There are many struggles that happen in life that shape the way that one perceives the world. Sometimes it is even the absence of an individual or the influence of a community. In director Stephen Frears' Philomena, the titular woman (Judi Dench) meets up with a struggling journalist named Martin (Steve Coogan) to find out about her son, who was long ago adopted to an American family from the Irish congregation where she grew up. With each preceding interview, more information is unraveled and the constructs of faith and understanding become more questionable as life's great mysteries become more complicated. 

One of the great struggles with the film is the script by Coogan and Jeff Pope. While it effectively sets up parallels between the forgiving Philomena and the questioning Martin, it doesn't treat its subject matter quite the same. The story evolves heavily around an Irish convent where Philomena gave birth to a child out of wedlock close to 50 years ago only to have it taken away from her, as it was seen as a sin. This isn't so much the problem as the third act is, in which the film tonally feels like a slight at an entire religion for being cruel. Even if there is exploration of good and evil within it, the depiction of Catholicism feels a little manipulative in how it chooses to paint its facts (the most notable of which is that an unwed mother in 1952 would have massive troubles living a productive life).

This isn't to say that the film is void of merit. Dench manages to give a terrific lead performance filled with whimsy and awe. Despite the poster dubbing this a comedy, it is more of a dramatic tale that is full of life and enthusiasm. She is forgiving of people's sins and only sees the best in others. Compared to Martin's cynicism and journalistic techniques, there are plenty of paralleled beliefs that are debated and explored. Even then, nothing compares to the clinical facts of discovering who Philomena's son was, which adds plenty of weight to the middling drama that is serviceable in narration, but lacks vibrant urgency. It may seem meditative at points, but the film doesn't feel overtly necessary.

Throughout the film, there are "home videos" of Philomena's son through his many years in America. Watching the smiling face live life, isolated from his mother, makes the incident feel more tragic and almost voyeuristic even for the mother. There is no way to change the history that laid before them and the interaction. All they have are the videos to keep them company, and that may be the strangest bit of all. Even if it does feel used to emotionally manipulate the narrative in the face of Catholicism in the third act, it does help to paint the struggles of Philomena in nothing but visuals. In the silence, only accompanied by Alexandre Desplat's piano-driven score, she watches these images and cries a bit.

Philomena is not necessarily a safe film, but one that needs to be watched carefully. Like life itself, there is too much grey area for one aspect of this film to work without seeming manipulative to another. It is also a rather progressive film in its depiction of the elderly when it comes to their opinions about behavior once considered sinful. Even then, the film moves slowly and only in the revealing moments does it feel like anything special. It paints an intriguing picture on a complicated issue, but it doesn't feel like it hold much weight in a flowing narrative.

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