“Philomena”: a review from the Savannah Film Festival

Since seeing Philomena last night at the Savannah Film Festival, I’ve been asking myself how it could have been better.

And I’m stumped.

Philomena is pretty much a perfect film.

The story follows the quest of Philomena Lee to find the son that she was forced to give up for adoption. As a naive teenager who knew nothing of sex, Philomena became pregnant and then was dropped off at a convent in Roscrea in Ireland. She worked hard, gave birth, and then saw her child sold to an unnamed American couple.

Over the years, Philomena makes a few attempts to find her son, but her efforts are stifled.

Philomena’s story falls in the lap of jaded journalist Martin Sixsmith, who eventually helps her uncover the truth(s).

Philomena seems to stick pretty close to the true story of Philomena Lee, as captured by Sixsmith in his book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Just yesterday, the Daily Mail published the real Philomena’s reactions to the film. Beware: spoilers.

You’d be hard pressed ever to find a true story with such a sense of completeness. The ironies are so profound, the missed chances so palpable, the broader political and religious themes so reasonant that Philomena might seem contrived or manipulative if it were purely fiction.

Judi Dench is spectacular as the title character. Some of Dench’s best work in the film comes when she is at her most restrained. In one brilliant moment, Sixsmith has gotten out of the car to talk to someone who can help piece the mysteries together. Dench rolls down her window to say something, and manages maybe an “M” before falling silent again, her eyes glowing.

Writer and producer Steve Coogan plays Sixsmith, whose cynicism and impatience eventually fall in the face of Philomena’s humanity.

Given all the other themes, some non-journalists might miss the fact that Philomena is also brilliant movie about investigative journalism. Is Martin manipulating Philomena? Will he tell her story fairly? If she pulls the plug, what will he do then? Do we approve when he aggressively, physically pushes for answers?

And what remains to be said about the subtle brilliance of director Stephen Frears, who manages to tell this complex story so deftly in little more than an hour and a half?

Frears’ movies have always been so good that I hesitate to say that his work has evolved or matured, or to use any similarly lame term.

But there does seem to be a satisfying arc to Frears’ work, from the transgressive zing of his films from the 80s like My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and Dangerous Liaisons, to the somewhat quieter but more subtly crafted films of this century, like Mrs. Henderson Presents and The Queen.

In Philomena, Frears avoids the biggest trap — overindulgence. He could tug harder at the heart strings, he could stretch out dramatic encounters, he could turn Philomena into some archetypal mother goddess.

But he doesn’t make any of those mistakes, and the layering of the narrative lines in the first half of the film is simply beautiful. It’s topped only by the dramatic confrontations of the second half of Philomena, as a whole series of sad truths are revealed.

Amazingly, Frears has only twice been nominated for Oscars — for The Queen in 2007 and for The Grifters in 1990.

The Academy is going to have some stellar nominees in that category in a few months, but it’s hard to imagine anyone more deserving than Frears or any film more deserving than Philomena.

Dench won an Oscar in 1999 for her very short supporting role in Shakespeare in Love and has been nominated several other times. But I’ll be shocked if she isn’t nominated again this year.