Dench carries ‘Philomena’ not quite far enough

By Movie Man | Published Wednesday, February 5, 2014

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The Movie Man did what he said he would do; he jumped back to a 2013 movie instead of one of the two boring-looking new releases – “That Awkward Moment” and “Labor Day,” the latter already being ridiculed for the “pie-making scene,” a so-inadvertently-bad-it’s-horribly-painfully-funny “Ghost” pottery-making reference.

So, the Movie Man took Movie Wife to see the sort of movie that usually gets a small release in America, and they found the British “Philomena.”


The main attraction for Movie Man and Movie Wife was Judi Dench.

They’re fans of Britcoms, older British comedies shown on weekends on PBS. Dench performs in one of the more beloved ones, “As Time Goes By.” If you ever need the Movie Man at 10 p.m. on a Sunday (unless “Sherlock” is on), you can find him in front of a TV watching “As Time Goes By.”

Moviegoers might more likely recognize her as M, James Bond’s boss. (If so, you were probably moved at her demise in “Skyfall,” 2012, Movie Man No. 1,008, an 8.)

Others recognize Dench for being a standout in the movie that managed the greatest travesty in winning Best Picture, “Shakespeare in Love” (1999; somehow it beat out “Saving Private Ryan” for the top prize). Dench won Best Supporting Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth I, on screen for just eight minutes in four scenes, No. 2 in the record for shortest appearance to win an acting Oscar. (No. 1 is Beatrice Straight’s mere six minutes in 1976’s “Network.”)

The other star of “Philomena” is Steve Coogan. A comedian, he’s a much bigger star overseas than in America, especially with the character Alan Partridge, a DJ. (U.S. folks might know him as Octavius in the two “Night at the Museums” or from “Tropic Thunder,” 2008, MM No. 786, 6).

British movies sometimes manage to storm American shores but not too often. They’re usually relegated to art-houses or limited releases like “Philomena.”

The Movie Man and Movie Wife ventured out for Dench and her nominated role. She’s up for Best Actress, and the movie is on the Best Picture list (and Coogan got nods as a producer and writer – actually a fourth nomination is for Original Score).

Dench has the best bet for winning. She’s up against Amy Adams (“American Hustle,” MM No. 1,070, 7) and Meryl Streep (“August, Osage County”). She’ll likely beat both of them. A bit more formidable is Sandra Bullock for “Gravity” (probably the Best Picture winner) and especially the critic’s favorite, Cate Blanchette for “Blue Jasmine.”

One thing’s for sure: Dench is great.


A young Philomena commits the sin of getting pregnant as a teenager on a one-night stand. The only place an unwed mother in 1950s Ireland can go is a nunnery. She has the baby, then toils for the nuns in their laundry for four years to pay for her sins. Philomena is permitted to see her son for just one hour daily.

When her Anthony is 2, she sees him taken away, adopted by an American couple. But Philomena (played by Dench in her old age) never forgot her beloved little boy. She carries a photo of him everywhere, even 50 years later.

World-weary journalist Martin (Coogan) is out of work and pitches writing a story about Philomena searching for her long lost son from so long ago. A newspaper bites. Their search begins at the cruel nunnery where no records were available.

But a tip sends them to America where they discover Anthony was successful politically. And gay. And dead, of AIDS.

All the while, Dench, from the middle class, and Coogan, privileged, bond. The hunt eventually sends them to the least likely place of all – and a confrontation that brings anger and forgiveness.


Dench is super. Director Stephen Frears frames her again and again in super close-ups, her lovely, gentle face lined, her eyes watery, wise and curious. Her occasional vulgarities – she’s a common person – are made more startling when uttered from such a kind, sensitive soul.

Coogan, too, is a standout. It’s really a two-person movie, an international road trip. His intellectual journalist scoffs at Dench’s devout Catholic beliefs, a reflection of the “educated” being too smart for religion.

Frears does a great job directing. The muted colors of Ireland are still lovely, and he shows beautiful wide vistas to illustrate just why Dench loves her home country so. And when in America, Dench and Coogan walk among our great Washington, D.C., memorials, helping us re-see what great works we take for granted.

There is some quietly, chuckle-worthy “veddy British” humor lines and some nice double-takes by Coogan to Dench’s simpleness and/or bold statements.


The duo has been searching for Dench’s son’s lover and finally find him. After being initially rebuffed, they gain entry and are shown the slide show run at his funeral. Dench gets to see brief snippets of a lifetime, one she never saw but only dreamed of. It’s a great scene.


There’s a definite thread of anti-Catholic and negative Republican/conservative views throughout the movie. A brief speech at the end of the movie can’t redeem the former and, well, you just expect the latter from most motion pictures today.

The Movie Man thought “Philomena” would be funnier. The situation was well set up for elite/average, godly/humanistic concepts, but they are not nearly as thoroughly explored through humor as they could have been.

The beginning sets the tone early; it’s very downbeat and downright depressing. (Movie Wife had serious doubts for the first 15 minutes.) This isn’t the happy-funny movie some might think going in.


This is one of those British films that contains several mentions of the f-bomb, a word that’s much more causal overseas than here. That word, some frank sex talk, and a semi-graphic birth scene give the movie its PG-13. It’s right.


The Movie Man thought “Philomena” would be better – which might be something unusual to say about a 7. But the pieces were in place for an 8; it just didn’t happen.


“The Lego Movie.”

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