Honesty is visible in Judi Dench’s eyes as she portrays Philomena, an elderly Irish woman in search of her son. Philomena’s near imprisonment at the hands of a Convent (who saw her out of wedlock pregnancy requiring due punishment), whisked her son away to America – for a price.
Fifty years later, a desperate journalist breaks his personal resistance to human interest stories, covering Philomena’s search and with it comes a film embossed with her name, based on Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book. Well versed director Stephen Frears depicts an often uncomfortable if effortlessly charming back-and-forth scuffle between this pessimistic, worn writer and perpetually upbeat yet simple woman pushing for hope.
Coogan’s Sixsmith is tired and snappy with sarcasm, the type of opinionated personality often incompatible in social circles. Plucked away from his Irish existence and shuttered onto a plane with an almost whimsical elderly woman is Philomena’s contrasting center.
Humor acts as a cushion, softening Philomena’s outwardly horrific emotional circumstances and decades of frustrations. Answers come with a subtle touch, a reality which breaks from cinematic stunts to better serve the narrative’s tonality. If only Alexandre Desplat’s score didn’t sound pulled from a vintage Hitchcock-ian thriller, misplaced and even repetitive amidst pluckier moments.
Coogan writes and stars but this is Dench’s piece. Philomena’s charismatically kind and conflicted temperament is fascinating as she doubles back on her perceived shame. Dench’s blank stares are hauntingly pure. This fragment of time is an intelligent depiction of hilly feelings with unobtrusive flashbacks, treated as a strengthening device.
Scripting boxes in Coogan and Dench to a degree of screen isolation, bouncing between the mismatched duo without succumbing to obvious comedic bits. Philomena’s sly humor is as original as it is uniquely placed within a surefire dramatic spectacle were Coogan (and co-writer Jeff Pope) so inclined. Instead, the laugh buffer’s subtlety acts a catch all, carrying the weight of this tormenting psychological burden.
Tenderness is a dramatic adjective abused to a level of critical cliché, although little stuffs together the inherent appeal found in such a story. Human interest may be Sixsmith’s journalistic poison, a type of relaxed reporting meant for page filling where space permits, but what’s here sacrifices religious devotion, shrewd adoption processes, and even uncomfortable bigotry for the sake of this woman’s solace. And it’s delicately stunning.
Digital purity shines within Philomena’s cinematography, a consistently sharp piece which bounces from close-ups of Coogan to those of Dench without concern. Displayed fidelity is presented to the peak of Blu-ray’s resolution, resolving packets of facial detail with few slip ups. Only in its closing shots does a sense of muddiness settle in, an anomaly for a feature otherwise content in distributing pristine clarity.
With exceptions set aside for certain interiors (bundled with oranges for warmer lighting), color alteration is minimal. Flesh tones are pleasingly natural as primaries are only softly elevated. Digital color grading appears almost absent, again until the final shots run into an appropriately chilly hue which could also be the cause of the distressed digital look. Someone cranked dials with unrestrained aggressiveness.
Philomena carries inset footage of home video – some of it actual footage of Philomena’s son – birthed from Super 8mm or VHS. Flashbacks are given a veil of artificial grain which is thus handled without fault by this AVC encode. Likewise too, these are graded with dimmer hues of teal and blue. Other vintage formats bleed and warp as is the norm for such footage. No complaints are relevant considering their purposeful use.
Visual form is molded to suit the tone, bright and sparked by contrast. Black levels are sufficiently deep to aid in furthering the sense of depth given by facial definition. Philomena is a surprise.
Dialog driven drama hardly allows for spacious design, although this DTS-HD affair will spread into the stereos to capture someone knocking on the door in a hotel or planes landing on a runway. Ambiance is minimal and audio composition has little room for bravery. It’s purposefully sedate even as Desplat’s score begins to rise. A minor hum is exhibited in the subwoofer for a hint of exploration into the low-end in an otherwise subwoofer-less mixture.
Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope bring with them a commentary, discussing their unique approach to this story. A Conversation with Judy Dench is self-explanatory although it digs into Dench’s early career in addition to discussing this film. The Real Philomena proves to the be the disc’s letdown, a promo piece hawking Philomena herself while offering no insight or interviews of note. Finally, there is post-screening interview with Coogan which runs 24-minutes.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.