Middlebrow-raising, by David Bax
One of my film school professors was fond of insisting that there’s nothing to be said in cinema than can’t be said in genre cinema. Taking this axiom to heart allowed me to understand and respect many films (horror, action, crime, etc.) that the younger, snobbier and more ignorant me may have dismissed. But there’s a certain type of film – the lightweight, middlebrow dramas that flood theaters at this time of year – of which I have long been contemptuous. But if middlebrow itself is a genre than Stephen Frears’ Philomena has once again proved my professor right and me foolish by being a top-notch entry with a great deal of meaning under its familiar, sentimental surface.
Judi Dench plays the title character, a woman in her 60s who, as a teen, was sent away to a convent upon accidentally becoming pregnant. There, the nuns took her child from her, allowing her to see him for but an hour a day, and put her to work seven days a week in the laundry, before eventually selling her boy to a wealthy American couple. Steve Coogan (also the film’s co-writer) plays Martin Sixsmith, a former journalist turned government official turned unemployed person who decides that pursuing this human interest story and helping Philomena find her son might be the best way to get his groove back.
Martin’s initial condescension (he pronounces “human interest story” as if the words will poison him if he’s not careful) is a clue that Frears, Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope are well aware of the impression one could get that they are dealing in pablum. It’s a subtly disarming tactic that makes it clear that it’s Sixsmith and, by extension, viewers like me who are the assholes here. Smart moves like that make it so that when we do encounter plot contrivances (Philomena’s son happens to be wearing an important clue in the first picture they find), we’re inclined to grant a mulligan.
The other element that tempers predictability is the film’s unique and personal sense of humor. I suspect we have Coogan – a well-known British comedian – to thank for that. It’s a sharpened wit that nudges the borders of anger and mean-spiritedness. Yet when, for example, Martin points out just how many people Philomena describes as “one in a million,” we see the humanity in each of them even as he makes fun.
Of course, that’s due as much to the performances as to the words on the page. Coogan has always exceled at finding the pitiable sadness underneath the bloviating jackasses he plays (such as himself in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes) and he continues the tradition here. But it’s Judi Dench, already recognized as one of the great living actors, who truly stuns. She’s not playing Queen Elizabeth or James Bond’s boss here. She’s not playing anyone with the immediately recognizable mental capacity with which we tend to associate her. Instead, she demonstrates that one can be just as wily with capacity of the heart and of will.
Will, in fact, is the trait that finally clues us into the nugget of deeper meaning that Frears and company have hidden in their seemingly programmatic fare. Though Philomena’s façade is that of a story about two people mending and uplifting themselves, it’s really an examination of religion. Philomena remains devoutly Catholic despite her treatment at the hands of God’s emissaries. The nuns’ dogmatic, legalistic approach to their faith has allowed prejudice and vindictiveness to flower. Yet this one guileless and seemingly small-minded woman has demonstrated that true belief can be a fount of compassion. To people who can be small-minded in their own, smug way, like Martin Sixsmith and me, it’s absolutely flooring.