18 December 2013

Review: Philomena

Genre: Drama

Director Stephen Frears seems to hit well when featuring the grand dames in his films. Three films are certainly only scant evidence of a pattern, but the salience of his The Queen (2007) and Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) when it be allowed to be coupled with the quality of their younger American siblings Dangerous Liaïsons (1988; featuring Glenn Close) and The Grifters (1990; featuring Anjelica Huston) admits a winking trend toward artfulness within this particular dramatic plane. Better than their past collaboration, (I'll call it) Mr. Frears and Dame Dench's Philomena is a wonderfully coaxed description of a classic dialogue: that between commanded virtue and cured ethicality.

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To say that the pairing here breaks new ground would, not surprisingly, be an overstatement; the film walks no lines that have not seen considered — carefully even — elsewhere (see this year's Hannah Arendt for example). However, the film does shine in the same way as, though not to the same extent, as, say, The Tree of Life (2011) did; it hums a new vibrancy into the old bones that it resurrects (in good condition) and invests passion, fortitude, and accessibility where there may not have been before in describing its exchange. That the unfolding of the narrative envelopes not merely history personal and social, emotions on screen and behind it, and contentions political and theological but moreover comedy honest and quotidian, taxes interpersonal and individual, and a thorough thread of intertemporal disconnection speaks to its intelligence. The film thus understands that the dialogue in instances lives and may be investigated, changed, and resolved within actual people and their interactions (or lacks thereof). We see, for example, the simplicity of its eponymous character's ways, heaping in one scene croutons from a salad bar upon her plate for her delight, counterpoised by her wiles, frankly and coolly acknowledging bi-curiosity or clitoral stimulation in another scene. Such an artful counterposition is revealing; the character upends expectations yet breaks no lines, at once encompasses social change and (at least at one time and in one place) highly contended moral issues and submits under minimal delectations and elementary cues. She is Shakespearean in this way — the play is; it makes no pardons for its academic aspirations (though it may smart them on the side of their conscientious head at times) but also connives to jibe with the common crowd — explicitly sometimes. The film therefore succeeds most excellently where it began: in its screenplay itself. Writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope — and not surprisingly actress Judi Dench — are to be most congratulated for expressing most clearly a complex conceit. 

Ultimately, while we as the audience know that this conceit can never achieve a resounding or clear resolution — an issue that the screenplay in passing itself points out to comic effect — we nevertheless arrive farther along than where we began, armed with more intellectual substance for our own positions than we'd possessed at our independent starts. Learning then is the stuff of film-making here.

Grade: A-/B+, well done.

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