It's a moot point by now than any of the English grandes dames of theatre and television will be, by themselves, reason enough to watch any film, no matter how middling. And Philomena is, indeed, middling, despite the pedigree of director Stephen Frears with actresses - cue Helen Mirren in The Queen, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening in The Grifters, Michelle Pfeiffer in Cheri, or both Ms. Bening and Ms. Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons. Worse, it's Mr. Frears' third middling film in a row after the equally underachieving Tamara Drewe and the barely released Lay the Favourite, despite re-teaming with Judi Dench after Mrs. Henderson Presents. 

     Though developed by co-star Steve Coogan, who produced and co-scripted from the book by journalist Martin Sixsmith, it's Ms. Dench who steals the film and runs wondrously with it, playing Irish nurse Philomena Lee - who, after 50 years, decides to finally look for the baby boy she bore out of wedlock at one of the infamous "Magdalene laundries" and was sold for adoption. Initially appearing to be a mismatched-buddy comedy, with the snobbish and prissy Sixsmith (Mr. Coogan) reluctantly "stooping" down to the level of the "human interest story" to follow the simple (but hardly simple-minded) working class woman's search, Philomena moves into darker and less obvious territory, as the true identity of Philomena's son is revealed and the true extent of the Catholic Church's shifty role in the case comes to light.

     Partly a plea for tolerance, partly a ferocious condemnation of a corrupted system, the film is essentially a two-hander that skirts dangerously the anti-religious tract and the tear-jerking melodrama; Mr. Frears handles it with a heavier hand than usual (the tonal balance between drama and comedy is mostly off-key) and allows it to slip occasionally into the "play for today" problem-picture, British-quality television mode which he has been able to evade most of the time. While the true case at its heart is nicely modulated, there's a sense the script, by Mr. Coogan and Jeff Pope, is unable to give the tale a different angle, unsure which way will make more justice to the story at its heart (and ending up not doing much of any justice). But it's all thankfully lightened by Ms. Dench's luminous, perfectly judged performance, with Mr. Coogan in fine form in the type of role he excels at (without extending his range at all). By no means a throwaway or a bad film, Philomena is just a middling film with a few good recommendation points.

Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Barbara Jefford, Anne Maxwell Martin, Mare Winningham
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriters: Mr. Coogan, Jeff Pope, from the book by Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan (colour)
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Designer: Alan Macdonald
Costumes: Consolata Boyle
Editor: Valerio Bonelli
Producers: Gabrielle Tana, Mr. Coogan, Tracey Seaward (Pathé Production, BBC Films, The British Film Institute, Baby Cow Films and Magnolia Mae Films)
United Kingdom/France/USA, 2013, 98 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, January 24th 2014

Nominated for four 2013 Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Actress - Judi Dench; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Original Music Score)


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