Philomena and the New Oscars

I.

Miss Williams and I agreed this scene is one of the diamonds of the film. Not saying anything more…

It may surprise you that Philomena has outgrossed both Dallas Buyers Club and her at the American box office. It should not surprise you that Philomena is an excellent movie. Like Gravity and Twelve Years a Slave, it is perfectly executed in that it fully works out its theme, never wastes a minute of its running time without feeling too short or too long, and has a marvelously constructed screenplay by Steve Coogan (who also produced and starred) and Jeff Pope. It’s the sort of script where the setups and payoffs are both logical and emotionally earned. There is one scene near the end, for instance, where the action takes a turn I initially thought was far too abrupt; by the end of that scene, however, I understood why the characters were acting the way they did at the beginning and what made them change. And the overall effect of these setups and payoffs was enough for it to be the first Best Picture nominee this year to make me cry. (I saw this with fellow Addisonian Meryl and she basically concurs on these opinions.)

(Editor’s Note: As someone who sat next to Andrew during 12 Years a Slave, this is definitely not the first Picture nominee of 2013 to make him cry. – Alex)

(Editor’s Note 2: As someone who sat down aisle of Andrew during 12 Years a Slave, I decidedly have to agree. Although he wasn’t alone in the crying. No sir. – Travis)

Moreover, the chemistry between Coogan and Dame Judi Dench is terrific. Philomena Lee and Martin Sixsmith don’t undergo that much change in the course of the movie (although they change more than the American Hustlers do), but Coogan and Pope more than compensate by having little aspects of their character be revealed slowly over time until, as the final scene sends us out on a more than satisfying note, we in the audience have a full, rich, layered understanding of them both. Contrast this with how, for all its own fine qualities, The Wolf of Wall Street adds nothing to what we know about Jordan Belfort after the first ten minutes.  Coogan is his usual smart, superior, wise-cracker who learns a lesson, while Dench is lovely as a character who at first glance is sentimentally dotty but ends up revealing a core as strong as her Elizabeth I and M from the Bond series. (Hearing Dench talk about her clitoris is a delight all its own.)

Plus, there’s a typically fine score from Alexandre Desplat, and Stephen Frears directs with his typical intelligence and unobtrusive mastery. (It’s easy to forget that Frears has directed so many Oscar contenders over the years—Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, The Queen—and other films that should have contended, especially High Fidelity.) The final result is a crowd-pleasing tear-jerker of the first rank. It’s not innovative or groundbreak or audacious or possessing some mark of greatness. But there are two things about Philomena I found notable

 

II.

In 1960, Burt Lancaster won Best Actor for playing the title role in a passion project of his, a grand-scale adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry.

Shirley Jones also won Best Supporting Actress, the virginal Rodgers & Hammerstein heroine and future Partridge Family matriarch revealing an incredibly sexy side of herself as a prostitute.

Lancaster’s turn as a sex-and-booze hungry salesman who hooks up with an inspired female preacher and starts selling Christianity to the masses was considered so dangerous to morality that United Artists insisted this disclaimer be placed before the opening credits:

“We believe that certain aspects of Revivalism can bear examination- that the conduct of some revivalists makes a mockery of the traditional beliefs and practices of organized Christianity! We believe that everyone has a right to worship according to his conscience, but- Freedom of Religion is not license to abuse the faith of the people! However, due to the highly controversial nature of this film, we strongly urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing it!”

This was the time when the studio system kicked off the widescreen revolution with The Robe and the biggest mega-productions included Going My Way, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Exodus, and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Today, a warning label would provoke laughter, and in our multicultural age overtly religious films are rarities among the big studios, but even after the revolutions of the late 1960s and 1970s, religion is still paid its dues by Hollywood. So many films, including Best Picture winners like Gandhi and Schindler’s List, are at the least reverent, not daring to attack or come down against religion at all.

When Travis decided we had a shot at reviewing every Best Picture nominee before the Oscars, he assigned me Philomena because of my personal perspective as an ex-Catholic but still devout believer (which is something I rarely talk about at the Recorder because, and let’s be honest, that’s not why you wonderful readers come here) . I’m glad he did, because Philomena is based on a very important point not expressed as much as in cinema as the religious/reverent opinion, namely, that religion is a construct of man but faith, true faith in God, is something personal, innate, springing from the soul and the contemplative heart without necessarily needing a structure.

The Catholic Church is the villain in this movie, and the extent of their villainy never reaches over the top levels but is still wrenchingly horrid. Martin, a committed atheist, lashes out at a room full of priests and nuns for such misguided, sanctimonious almost-evil and neither the film nor this reviewer claim he is wrong. But Philomena, whose faith in God never wavers in the face of these revelations, does not choose anger or vengeance. She is hurt, almost broken, and her final choice is one that strikes against them, but she forgives the human failings of people who did the opposite of forgiveness, and worse, to her. She acts from the same love she carries for her lost child. In my favorite exchange in the movie, Philomena brings Martin to silence in the midst of his tirade against those in holy orders.

“I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you. Look at you.”

“I’m angry.”

“It must be exhausting.”

Philomena is not exhausted, not weak. She is strong in a different way than Martin—an admirably strong character himself—has ever conceived of being strong. And I love this mix of personalities. I want more films like Philomena, which rightly attack the worst of religion while also reminding us of the importance of faith and God’s presence AND ALSO acknowledging the respect due to atheism.

 

III.

            This attitude towards faith injects an unconventional boost into the otherwise very conventional Philomena, and this mixture, coupled with its small, little-star-power-in-the-USA Englishness, does not scream Best Picture nominee at first, but Philomena’s chances were helped by the 2009 expansion of the slate.

On the occasion of the fifth year of 9-10 Best Picture nominees, two of the smartest observers of film culture, Mark Harris and David Poland, engaged in a debate on the merits of this change. Harris argued that more contenders for the top prize ruins the Oscars by resulting in fewer films getting nominated overall…a position which may be borne out by statistical analysis. Poland’s reply (and I link to the first of a two-part column, the second of which addresses Harris point by point) is that getting increased recognition for outstanding movies, both leading people to investigate more pictures that could have been overlooked and insuring that films of the highest quality will receive deserved recognition, is only good for the Oscars and for the movies in general. I’m not positive who is right, as any good debate between experts should leave one feeling, but I lean towards Poland. The Best Picture pool since the change is more reflective of world cinema’s diversity in style and genre, and allows more films that take divergent points of view from the norm to be honored. Philomena is a small, intimate chamber comedy-drama. Six years ago it might have came and went. Now it’s a genuine hit, and its ability to stay in awards contention is no small factor in that. It is an epitome of the new Oscars…a program which in the broadcast may keep getting sillier, but in the nominations and awards, what matters, keeps getting better. (Now if only they’d given BP to The Social Network and The Tree of Life, but one step at a time.)

As Philomena would say, films like this are “one in a million.”

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan's first graphic novel, "An Elegy for Amelia Johnson," was named one of the best comics of 2011 by USA Today. His second book will be published by Archaia/Boom! Studios in 2015. When not telling fictional stories, he enjoys nothing more than conversing with his fellow Recorder members and the rest of the world.

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