Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
'Kick-Ass' Creator Mark Millar Says A Hit-Girl Solo Movie Was Once In The Works With 'The Raid' Director Gareth Evans 'Kick-Ass' Creator Mark Millar Says A Hit-Girl Solo Movie Was Once In The Works With 'The Raid' Director Gareth Evans Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon & Leslie Jones To Lead Paul Feig's 'Ghostbusters' Reboot Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon & Leslie Jones To Lead Paul Feig's 'Ghostbusters' Reboot 30 Films You Forgot Were Oscar Winners 30 Films You Forgot Were Oscar Winners Review: Documentary 'Night Will Fall' Is A Powerful Reminder Of The Horrors Of The Holocaust Review: Documentary 'Night Will Fall' Is A Powerful Reminder Of The Horrors Of The Holocaust Harvey Weinstein Explains What Happened With 'Grace Of Monaco,' Says He Was Right About 'Snowpiercer' Harvey Weinstein Explains What Happened With 'Grace Of Monaco,' Says He Was Right About 'Snowpiercer' Harvey Weinstein Says Quentin Tarantino Has Changed The Last Chapter Of 'The Hateful Eight' Harvey Weinstein Says Quentin Tarantino Has Changed The Last Chapter Of 'The Hateful Eight' Sundance Review: ‘Slow West’ Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee & Ben Mendelsohn Sundance Review: ‘Slow West’ Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee & Ben Mendelsohn Sundance: Keanu Reeves Opens The Door To Trouble In Teaser Trailer For Eli Roth's 'Knock Knock' Sundance: Keanu Reeves Opens The Door To Trouble In Teaser Trailer For Eli Roth's 'Knock Knock' Watch: 8-Minute Video Essay Argues Steve McQueen's 'Shame' Is Actually A Critique Of The Modern Metropolis Watch: 8-Minute Video Essay Argues Steve McQueen's 'Shame' Is Actually A Critique Of The Modern Metropolis Watch: The Tampon Scene From 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' You Won't See In The Movie Recreated With 'The Sims' Watch: The Tampon Scene From 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' You Won't See In The Movie Recreated With 'The Sims' The 10 Best Films Of 2004 The 10 Best Films Of 2004 'Death Proof' Star Zoe Bell Leads Latest Additions To Quentin Tarantino's 'Hateful Eight' As Filming Begins 'Death Proof' Star Zoe Bell Leads Latest Additions To Quentin Tarantino's 'Hateful Eight' As Filming Begins Watch: 'Saturday Night Live' Sketch 'Fanatic' Written & Directed By Paul Thomas Anderson And Starring Ben Affleck Watch: 'Saturday Night Live' Sketch 'Fanatic' Written & Directed By Paul Thomas Anderson And Starring Ben Affleck First Look: Leonardo DiCaprio Gets Grimy In Alejandro González Iñárritu's 'The Revenant' First Look: Leonardo DiCaprio Gets Grimy In Alejandro González Iñárritu's 'The Revenant' "Carry Bolt Cutters Everywhere": Werner Herzog Has 24 Amazing Pieces Of Advice "Carry Bolt Cutters Everywhere": Werner Herzog Has 24 Amazing Pieces Of Advice The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far Watch: 3 Graphic, Very NSFW Clips From Lars von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac Vol II — Director's Cut' Watch: 3 Graphic, Very NSFW Clips From Lars von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac Vol II — Director's Cut' The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki Christopher Nolan Says His Howard Hughes Film Is Dead, But He'd Still Like To Do A Bond Film At Some Point Christopher Nolan Says His Howard Hughes Film Is Dead, But He'd Still Like To Do A Bond Film At Some Point

Venice Review: Stephen Frears' 'Philomena' Starring Judi Dench & Steve Coogan

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist August 31, 2013 at 1:09PM

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.
1
Philomena

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. It's even screening at Venice almost seven years to the day after the director's "The Queen," which went on to earn a Best Picture nomination and a Best Actress trophy for Helen Mirren. But if "Philomena" is Oscar bait (and ultimately, we're not all that fond of the phrase), then it's Oscar bait done right.


Philomena

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.

Philomena

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 were forced into near-slave labor and separated 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.

Philomena

It's certainly a crowd-pleaser (it played like gangbusters to the Venice audience this morning) 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+] 

Browse through all our coverage of the 2013 Venice Film Festival to date by clicking here. 

This article is related to: Venice Film Festival, Venice, Philomena, Steve Coogan, Judi Dench, Stephen Frears


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


E-Mail Updates