Niagara Gazette

November 25, 2013

CALLERI: Judi Dench's new movie shifts gears too often

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — In “Philomena,” Judi Dench gives two performances because the movie she’s in doesn’t seem to know whether it’s a drama or a comedy. I wish that directors, screenwriters and producers responsible for this ever-increasing duality would stop. Make the audience cry or make the audience laugh. But cease trying to be all things to all moviegoers.

This annoying grasp for thematic communal togetherness is detrimental to the experience of watching films. The people in the theater are already part of a community, a gathering of folks sitting in the darkness. There’s no need to deliver bland “one size fits all” entertainment.

“Philomena” tells a true, serious, and disturbing story, so why the jokes? The movie is based on the nonfiction book “The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith, who is a central character in the film and is played by comic actor Steve Coogan.

While a teenager in Ireland, Philomena becomes pregnant in an era that can hardly be called enlightened. Being sexually promiscuous was tantamount to being a criminal. In 1952, she’s sent to a convent in a country village. After giving birth to a son, Philomena is required to live at the convent for years working in the laundry in conditions that are oppressive. The nuns who run the convent are stern taskmasters overseeing slave labor.

In the 1950s and 1960s, tens of thousands of unmarried Irish teenagers and young adults were sent to convents across the nation to give birth. They were forced to live in servitude because the Catholic Church considered the single mothers morally unfit. They had to work to pay back the church for living in what was essentially a religious prison camp. Adding to their heartbreak, as mothers, they were allowed only an hour a day to bond with their child. Worse was the fact that the girls were forced to sign away their children, who were put up for adoption and sold to people from around the world. Once a girl worked off her debt, or if her shamed family would be willing to pay a fee to get her released, she could go home. Philomena’s little boy was three when he was adopted, and she was present to witness the moment.

Joni Mitchell wrote a song called “Magdalene Laundries” about this chapter in history. And it wasn’t unique to Ireland. Across Europe and in the United States, these “Magdalene asylums,” many run by religious orders, housed and abused females of all ages for nearly two centuries.

For 50 years, Philomena, a quiet, reserved and respectful woman, wondered deeply about what happened to her son. Through circumstances almost too contrived to believe, she meets Sixsmith, a former journalist and disgraced public official, who was once a member of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s team.

Sensing a way out of his own miasma, Sixsmith agrees to write Philomena’s story. They start their seemingly impossible journey at the convent, where the nuns keep reality from public view. Through some information they are told quietly and some research on the internet, they discover that Philomena’s child was adopted by an American couple. Before you know it, they are gadding about Washington, D.C., staying in a luxury hotel, and toddling around the surrounding countryside searching for what happened to baby Michael.

In fact, he had grown up to become an attorney who worked in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. I won’t reveal a couple of other interesting elements that are tossed into the pot, but where once Philomena was sweet and unassuming, she is now a super sleuth.

It’s in Washington that the movie gets silly. The comedy is ratcheted up. Are we really supposed to believe that Philomena doesn’t know about foods at breakfast buffets, especially waffles, or that hotel rooms have showers AND tubs? All seriousness of purpose is thrown out the window overlooking the balcony from which Philomena can see the dome of the Capitol Building.

Once the Washington sojourn is over, and with it the knowledge that Philomena knows surprisingly quite a bit about gay men, she and Martin return to Ireland, where they will confront Sister Hildegarde, who just might be the most evil nun in motion picture history.

The true nature of the actual story keeps getting bumped aside. Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screenplay abruptly changes tone at every opportunity. The film’s pacing is too obvious. Slow and dreary for Ireland. Peppy and feisty for D.C. Clearly, director Stephen Frears didn’t know what thematic hand to play. He should have chosen drama.

Through all of the script and directing problems with the movie, there’s an unshakeable moral center. Dench is so good that nothing can disrupt your acceptance that Philomena Lee is a woman of such deep and abiding faith that her willingness to forgive can move mountains.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at