Even at 79, Judi Dench continues to amaze. Her performance as Philomena Lee, a kindly Irish woman who attempts to track down the son she was forced to abandon decades earlier, represents a new high-water mark for the veteran actress, who commands every crease of her storied features and every glance of her piercing blue eyes to deepen the portrayal. Philomena is a film about love, life, death, faith and forgiveness, but most of all it’s a story about one woman’s stunning courage in the face of adversity. And with Dench in the part, the film also becomes a dazzling showcase for her talents.
When we first meet Philomena, she’s lost in thought, reliving her years as a teenager in a convent, when she became pregnant following a tryst with a local boy and gave birth, only to find herself imprisoned by the nuns and forced to give the baby up for adoption. After enduring a lifetime of unanswered questions, she’s fiercely determined to find her son. Dench effortlessly depicts Philomena’s staggering strength of character, weaving her overwhelming compassion and kindliness into every line.
Enter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a journalist sacked from his job as a Labour government advisor following a political scandal. Though Martin initially scoffs at the idea of writing a lowly “human interest” story, crossing paths with Philomena changes his mind. Together, they set off on a quest to locate Philomena’s long-lost son that brings them across the ocean to the U.S., where the answers they first sought beg far more troubling questions.
One of Philomena‘s main attractions – yet also the reason that some may not warm to it as much as others – is that, at its heart, the film is a real story. What that means is that, if you let yourself get caught up in Coogan and Jeff Pope’s endearing script, you’ll have a wonderful time with Philomena, but you have to make a conscious decision to look past plot developments that are little too obviously Hollywood-ized to fit the film’s “based on a true story” disclaimer. There are a few eye-rollers here, which is a shame considering how excellent the rest of the film is.
Case in point: Coogan, known for his comedy, plays Martin with an emotional depth hitherto unseen from the actor. Of course, his deadpan line delivery is spot-on, but Coogan also tugs at the heartstrings with his performance, making Martin, for all his dry cynicism and rationality, a delightfully adept foil for the warm, optimistic Philomena. Watching the two banter about everything from religion to table manners is a total joy.
At 98 minutes, Philomena doesn’t outstay its welcome but still manages to pack a hefty emotional punch. It’s heartbreaking to witness the mistreatment Philomena suffered at the hands of nuns vicious in their devotion to God, but it’s just as uplifting to see her spirit soar above that hatred. Though certain parts of Philomena‘s tale of lost souls should be depressing, I felt anything but after watching the film. It’s funny, moving and deeply enjoyable – in other words, Philomena is terrific filmmaking made all the more remarkable for how its deceptively quaint narrative holds a profoundness and grace well-suited to its difficult subject.
Anchor Bay gave Philomena a superb video transfer. Scenes set in the modern day are crystal clear and gorgeously detailed, particularly in scenes where Dench’s features are front and center. Her eyes are breathtakingly beautiful and filled with emotion, and the actress’s wrinkles appear as a work of art by some great sculptor. Locations, too, are filled with color and life, from green countrysides to the bustling Washington, D.C. Scenes set in the past look almost like old photographs, with grainier texture and less vibrant presentation, in keeping with the film’s treatment of those scenes as Philomena’s darkest memories. This is a flawless video presentation from Anchor Bay.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also great, lending dialogue a satisfying crispness while also presenting Alexandre Desplat’s score at its luminous best. Philomena is not a movie built on impactful sound effects like explosions or gunfire, but the audio track is still very well-placed and pleasing to listen to. No complaints.
Philomena comes equipped with more extras than many of its fellow nominees (cough cough, Blue Jasmine), though I still wish that Anchor Bay had put a little more energy into creating interesting features. The disc comes with:
- Audio Commentary with Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
- A Conversation with Judi Dench
- The Real Philomena Lee
- Q&A with Steve Coogan
Coogan and Pope’s audio commentary is enjoyable and light-hearted, which is definitely to its advantage considering some of the heavy subject matter on display in the film. They cover a large range of topics, some more interesting than others, from items from previous iterations of their script that didn’t make the cut to details about specific things to their thoughts about filmmaking as a whole. Recommended for fans of the film.
“A Conversation with Judi Dench” is disappointingly brief at just under nine minutes. It would have been nice to see a little more from the actress – she’s fascinating to listen to, and one gets the sense that decades in show business have given her many stories to tell. Still, Dench touches on lots from her career, including her iconic role as M in the James Bond franchise and how she got her start in the industry.
If “A Conversation with Judi Dench” is brief, “The Real Philomena Lee” is basically an after-thought. At under three minutes, it spends too much time discussing the movie again and not enough with its title subject. The few questions we get during an interview with her at the film’s premiere are solid, but it’s feather-light as a featurette.
Finally, Coogan’s question-and-answer session (which clocks in at around 24 minutes) is packed with interesting tidbits about Coogan’s role in finding the film, co-writing the script and guiding its thematic direction. The actor/writer/producer worked tirelessly to get Philomena moving, and that much is clear in the Q&A session.
Though it can feel a little larger-than-life at times, Philomena is a beautiful, touching and extremely satisfying film that boasts Dench’s finest performance in years. Anchor Bay gave it a strong package for home media, with stellar video quality and top-notch audio, and though the special features leave something to be desired, there’s still plenty for fans of the film eager to peek behind the curtain. Let yourself get swept up in Philomena – it’s a bittersweet gift of a movie.
Though sticklers for realism will balk at some of the more Hollywood-ized aspects of Philomena, those willing to go along with it will discover a profoundly affecting drama that boasts a preeminent performance from Judi Dench.