The first time I ever saw Dame Judi Dench she was naked.
Or nearly so. She appeared as a concupiscent Titainia, Queen of the Fairies, opposite Ian Richardson as King Oberon, in Peter Hall's shimmering, perfect 1968 film adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Now that was a movie. Believe I first saw it in Alvin Kernan's Shakespeare course when I was a sophomore at Yale.
But today I am here to discuss her fine work in the first of our thumbs'-up films, "Philomena." Her co-star, Steve Coogan, co-wrote and co-produced the film. Dame Judi plays Philomena Lee, who enlists former Labour Government advisor Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) to assist in finding an illegitimate son, Anthony to whom she gave birth at a convent. The nuns of the convent permitted his adoption -- for a handsome fee, it is suggested -- to a couple who had come in to adopt a little girl but ended up taking Anthony, the little girl's best friend, as well.
The movie is the story of their search, what they find, and, of course, there's the "getting to know you" angle between the buttoned-down and cynical Martin and the hopeful and spunky Philomena. I won't say any more than that. Needless to say, Martin finds something, and it is really all quite genuinely moving.
There has been some talk that the movie is anti-Catholic. Mmm, not sure about that. To be absolutely certain, those nuns of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Roscrea, county Tipperary, Ireland, oh, they do not come across well at all. In addition to selling kids out from under their unfortunate unwed mothers, they are terrible liars. I have read that that Order says no, it didn't happen that way, and we're not going to settle it in this review. At least one crucial scene was fabricated. But yeah, you don't have a real good feeling about dogma when the movie is over.
But "Philomena" is not about whether the worldly punishment of sexual immorality is good or bad. It is about the great undiminished love of a mother for her boy across the years and miles and choices.
Some minor misgivings:
Coogan's performance is understated almost to the point of invisibility. He goes through the film with a faintly uncomfortable look on his face, perplexed by Philomena. Never really snaps out of it, even as matters approach their climax. While there's plainly supposed to be some kind of cathartic connection of this unlikely pair as the truth gradually emerges, it is not reflected in Coogan's performance.
Dench is one of those iconic actors who can barely be criticized ever about anything (although see next review). And there's no fault to be found here, either. The problem is that the film isn't quite sure who she is. Sometimes she's a dotty, oblivious consumer of tacky romance novels; the next she's speaking knowledgeably about the range of contemporary sexual preferences. Sometimes she's helpless, lost without Martin; other times she shows him up with her determination and spunk. Not a dreadful fault -- just makes the thing seem just a little less than serious.
But, then and now -- what a Dame.
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