Every year I try pretty hard to see all the movies that are likely to be Best Picture nominees before the nominations are announced. I don’t do this just to have bragging rights; I do it because I know that more often than not my knowledge that something is an Oscar nominee will have an effect on how I watch the film. Specifically I want to avoid situations like what happened in 2008 where I had to go see The Reader half out of obligation and spent the whole movie thinking “why the hell did this thing take up the nomination slot that The Dark Knight, The Wrestler, or Rachel Getting Married should have taken.” It wasn’t an overly fair mindset approach that film with and while I did ultimately give it a marginally positive review I still wonder if I would have liked it a lot better under different circumstances. Well, history has repeated itself and a film that I had dismissed as minor has once again gotten a surprise nomination that I went to with complete skepticism. This time around that film is a low-key British drama called Philomena.
The film’s basic set up is oddly similar to, of all things, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Both films are about disgraced professionals who, out of desperation, decide to conduct journalistic investigations that they weren’t otherwise interested in only to discover that the case they’ve stumbled upon is far more interesting than they would have otherwise suspected. The similarities end there I suppose because rather than stumbling upon a sordid series of murders and disappearances the reluctant hero here, a former journalist turned former politician turned journalist again named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), runs into an old Irish woman looking for her long lost son. That woman is the title character, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who was forced to give her child up for adoption at one of the Magdalene Asylums back when the Catholic Church more or less ran things in Ireland. These were institutions where unmarried pregnant women were sent, forced to work for four years in order to pay for the expense, and then forced to give up their child, all while being treated like crap by the holier than thou nuns running the places. Thinking that this has the makings of a good article, Sixsmith offers to help track down Philomena’s son, who would be in his fifties at this point. This trail eventually leads them to the United States where these two rather different people must track down this missing son together.
The character of Martin Sixsmith is obviously meant to be an audience surrogate, and he’s a better one than most. Usually characters like these just sort of exist to be sort of a blank slate, but Sixsmith bucks this trend by being a skeptical snob who thinks he’s above the film that he’s in the middle of in. People like me, who go into the films expecting it to be a hallmark card masquerading as Oscar-bait, will instantly relate to him. When Sixsmith first hears about Philomena’s case he says it sounds like a human interest story, a form of journalism he (accurately) claims is “a euphemism for stories about vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant, people to fill up the pages of newspapers read by vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people.” In doing so he establishes the central question at the center of the film: “is Philomena Lee’s story really important in the grand scheme of things or is it just being told to make its audience feel good about the fact that they’re collectively making the poor old woman at its center queen for the day?” Bu the end of the film, Sixsmith certainly comes to think it’s the former. I’m not so sure about that, but I do admire that this is a film that at least bothers to ask the question in the first place.
Philomena herself couldn’t be more different from Sixsmith. She’s a soft spoken though not overly somber person who isn’t overly cultured, but who does have the capacity to surprise the audience at times. Needless to say her personality grates on Sixsmith at times and Sixsmith’s occasional rudeness is sometimes off-putting to Lee. So, in many ways this is a traditional example of a movie where two people come to respect one-another over the course of a road trip. The specific personalities here are somewhat different from the norm though, so it mostly works. When the film ended I was ultimately a lot more enticed by the two characters than I was by this particular story of injustice. At the end of the day, I pretty much do regard this film with about the same amount of respect that I regard a “human interest story,” which is to say I see it, it makes me go “hmmmm,” and then I never think about it again.
*** out of Four