By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 21, 2013 at 6:08PM
The term "Oscar bait" is one that, unfortunately, gets bandied about a lot this time of year. At worst, it's used to refer to every faintly serious-minded film released between July and December. At best, it describes a very particular kind of middlebrow drama that seems to have been created from the ground up with the sole purpose of appealing to the Academy—think "The Iron Lady" or "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," to name two recent examples. Stephen Frears' "Philomena" appears on the surface to fit into the latter category. It's a based-in-fact comedy-drama with a mix of laughter and tears, with a prestigious filmmaker (albeit one who's been off his game for a while), an already awarded lead in Dame Judi Dench, and the might of The Weinstein Company behind it. But if "Philomena" is Oscar bait (and ultimately, we're not all that fond of the phrase), then it's Oscar bait done right.
Working from a script he co-wrote with Jeff Pope ("Pierrepoint," "Mrs. Biggs"), Steve Coogan stars as Martin Sixsmith, a real-life journalist-turned-spin doctor who was forced to resign after taking the fall for a government scandal. Depressed in his unemployment, he's asked to write a human interest story about Philomena Lee (Dench), a woman who, as a teenager in Ireland, fell pregnant, was sent to a convent, and forced to give the child up for adoption. Fifty years on, she's looking to reunite with her son, and Sixsmith, a lapsed Catholic himself, semi-reluctantly agrees to help with a quest that will ultimately take them to America.
The opening stretch of "Philomena" is a little shaky in places—there are some big laughs, but it feels like Frears is still suffering from the same malaise that led to "Cheri" and "Lay The Favorite," with the editing feeling wonky and Sixsmith's storyline taking a while to find its groove. But it doesn't hang about in bringing the two leads together, and they make a terrific team. Coogan, generously, is happy to play straight man, and gives the best lines and jokes to his co-star, who's looser and funnier than we've seen her in a long time. The two share an easy rapport, and given that the film's essentially a two hander, that proves crucial.
We don't want to give the impression that the film is purely a comedy, it's far from it, dealing with the great Catholic Church scandal of the Magdalene Sisters, who forced their the women in their convents into near-slave labor and separated them from their children (Peter Mullan dealt with similar stories in his underrated directorial effort "The Magdalene Sisters"). It's powerful and very moving stuff, but Frears is careful to treat it with a light touch, and to leaven the more serious moments with a joke without lessening the drama.
Coogan and Pope's script deserves particular credit for this. As much as the film has that predestined Academy comedy-drama sheen to it, the screenplay is spikier and angrier than it has any right to be, particularly when it comes to its indictment of the Church's role in Philomena's trauma. And yet, simultaneously, it's fair and empathetic, never making a punchline out of her faith. It occasionally threatens to condescend to her, but every time it comes close, it subverts your expectations (as with a warm and very human scene when Dench reacts to one discovery about her son). Like Sixsmith, the film comes to admire its title character enormously.
It's certainly a crowd-pleaser and something close to a triumph, if not an unqualified one. The film's depiction of the world of journalism is a bit one-note—Coogan, who's had his tangles with the press, clearly has a bit of an axe to grind here. And while some of the creative team are top-tier, the contributions of composer Alexandre Desplat's overbearing score and the great Robbie Ryan's handsome, but atypically anonymous photography are a bit disappointing. But if you leave your preconceptions about the film's awards-related motives at the door, you'll still find a lovely and deceptively complex film that marks a real return to form for its director. [B+]
This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the 2013 Venice Film Festival.