We begin with Viv Mah‘s take on Stephen Frear’s Philomena, whose screenplay earned Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope a BAFTA this past weekend. It remains an outsider, but is a touching and often very funny film with a stunning performance from Dame Judi Dench.
There’s a quote by St Augustine which goes like this: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” Forgive me for my semantics and sentimentality, but it’s fast occurring to me that I’ve read nothing truer of the human condition and the way we compartmentalise our reactions to tragedy and loss than this.
I’m a rager. If there are problems to be fixed, I’ll damn well pick up the hammer and chisel out a solution; it’s a proactive reaction of the sort that movie heroes and heroines progress, and it’s the kind of moxie that audiences are slavering to see. By comparison Philomena features an exquisite interplay between journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) in the first of St Augustine’s categories, and Judi Dench (as the titular Philomena, stalwart standard of the second), whose movement forward in the search for Philomena’s son feels unhurried, almost outside-of-time; a testament to the way life plays out in minutiae.
Philomena is based upon the true story of one Philomena Lee who, following a brief tryst and the ensuing, unplanned child, was talked into giving up her son to an American couple without farewell or fanfare. Furthermore, she was kept in the abbey where she was sent for the duration of her pregnancy, to work off the charges incurred by her stay in manual labour. Following the loss of her son the next fifty years are spent in a haze of muted guilt and anxiety which culminate in the elderly lady Dench has created: impossibly saintly still despite her troubles, as removed from the world’s advances as she was as a teenager, and by turns ceaselessly companionable, then close-mouthed and reticent.
Certain props must be paid to Dench in this regard. It is one thing to have the audience fixate upon you as a grating character in the film’s narrative, and another altogether to win their sympathy with the quirky, parochial nonsense you spout, all the while keeping their beef with your character’s ineptitude fixed. Oddly enough, despite the trailer’s original pitch of Philomena as a feel-good, weepy fix, it’s Dench’s character who delivers some of the film’s most unexpected sources of humour: she’s quick to recite the logline, premise, and entire plotline of a saccharine romance novel to a quietly-suffering Coogan.
That said, this mastery of the many shifting paradigms in which Philomena exists is to be expected of Dench. While she faces stiff competition in the form of Blanchett and others in the race for Best Actress, it’s impossible to pin her down in one set emotion for any duration longer than a few seconds. Her performance is fluid, subtle, and well-tempered in a way that elevates the narrative from the uncomfortable tone of dramedy to something else entirely; a human-interest story, as Coogan’s Sixsmith would call it, that lacks the histrionics or manipulative scores others boast. It is in Philomena’s delicate about-turns that the film finds its strongest footing: silences are employed to masterful aplomb, and reversals of the anticipated retort — though these come flying quick and fast, too — places Philomena safely within carefully-crafted Oscars territory.
As for its chances; first and foremostly, there’s something about true stories which tug on Oscar voters’ heartstrings. “Look at this tragedy here,” they say; “look at how faithfully this cast has rendered it.” Philomena Lee herself, upon whom the film is based, hasn’t raised any vocal protests against the piece so far — and while controversy, of the sort the Wolf of Wall Street’s apt to generate for itself, often sells, art that looks to be finessed is a far more viable vehicle for the Academy to approve of.
But beyond this, in a time where metaphysics is pooh-poohed and God’s existence is soundly denied as old-fashioned speculation, it’s brave for a film character — these pilot light personalities by which we measure ourselves — to confess they seek spirituality in this secular age. To touch upon the matter of personal beliefs as delicately as Philomena does; an unflinching examination at ourselves, and the mundanity and drama; the flintiness and faith in which she can simultaneously exist, is an unparalleled celebration of the human spirit, as opposed to a remonstration or demonstration of it against the regular odds. What voter can resist something that tugs on the strings of the human heart so profoundly, while stubbornly refusing to buckle under the weight of expected melodrama and neat plot ends? (Who wouldn’t confess that they saw some of the titular character’s moxie embedded in the film’s direction on a whole? What better way to represent an individual, than to infuse her story with the values and grit she’s existed upon?)
Nor at any point does the film attempt to get sanctimonious with its audience either; much in the way it understands that colour-sapped flashbacks are far more powerful devices than saccharine soliloquies, both Sixsmith and Lee seem well aware that their unbinding support for their respective institutions is a fickle, backless thing. Granted, there’s certainly a struggle between faith and the fallibility of blame and independence, which at times translates to a sort of stasis in which the characters exist — but isn’t this the point: that we do fight the parameters of our existence on a regular basis? And then, as the movie’s ultimate scene seems to imply, isn’t it better that we put our odds to peace and ensure the next step forward we take is a better one?
The film is a celebration of our nature, replete with a wry bevy of self-aware quips at the nature of belief, right, and wrong; and a celebration that ensures all the ribbons and confetti that could turn a life into artifice, are jettisoned.
With the film vying for several other significant accolades, such as Best Score (for Alexandre Desplat) and Best Adapted Screenplay (for Jeff and Pope and Steve Coogan) and its recent sweep of awards, its quite possible that Philomena willl pick up Best Picture on the way too. And who’d have the heart to oppose this?
Check back tomorrow for the second in our nine-part series on the 2014 Oscar Best Picture Contenders.