Putting aside for a moment the fact that Judi Dench is a damned fine actress, she finds herself in a position that not a lot of performers at her age are in; the ability to pull more depth from older characters than many would expect. Conventionally to some degree, more mainstream elderly protagonists are portrayed with a slight wink and nod to their pending mortality. There tends to be a level of grace when Dench does it, but more importantly she gets the chance to handle more complicated or even demanding tasks with the people she inhabits, and in the title role, Philomena is one of those.
The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, who gave birth to a son while a teenager. Mother and son were kept in a convent in Ireland, and eventually the son was given to foster parents. This was not an uncommon event in some convents, but was done as a sale rather than an adoption, done with and for American families. After she left the convent she had a daughter but she always wondered about where her son went. And this is where Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, The Other Guys) comes into play. Sixsmith, a former BBC News correspondent who was recently forced to resign from his position within the British government, is initially hesitant to tell Philomena's story as he is not a fan of human interest pieces. But he relents, and as the search takes him from Ireland to Washington, D.C., we gradually and eventually learn the who's and where's of Philomena's son.
Coogan adapted the Sixsmith novel into a screenplay with the help of Jeff Pope (Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman), and Stephen Frears (The Queen) directed. As the title character, Dench is just enjoyable. Playing off of Martin's cynicism and general wariness of most things these days, Philomena does have a great desire to find her son and yet for someone in her sixties there is still a wide-eyed innocence to many things that makes her refreshing to see. A humorous moment finds her talking to Martin on an airport terminal shuttle about a romance serial novel as if it were The Iliad tends to capture Philomena's disposition. The most conflict between Martin and Philomena would appear to lie within his astonishment that she is not as angry as perhaps she should be. How Dench articulates her explanation is a testament to her abilities, almost providing the period at the end of the sentence as to Philomena's persona. As Martin, Coogan does go stride for stride with Dench for the most part, presumably Coogan's prior experience in The Trip helps in that regard. But seeing him be frustrated at Philomena and then eventually for her is an understated but effective part of the film and Coogan's dramatic acumen is not out of his range here.
For as engaging and involved the story is, there are some stretch marks on it, where it seems to have bolder aspirations that do not really get executed or wants to place a backhanded slap at a variety of institutions, but a lot of this is tamped down by Philomena herself because it simply is not worth the time. Putting aside that she has a larger burden of her own that she has carried for half a century, why expend the extra energy to hate, or be angry? There is an emotionally key moment midway through the film that Dench handles extraordinarily. That is the largest testimony to who Philomena is for me.
I am trying to dance around the journey Philomena takes without giving up much because I think it is something that everyone should experience both for its lesser spoken boldness and for the performance of the two leads in the movie. Dench continues to amaze and as she explores various facets of characters in her late 70s, one can only assume gems such as these will continue to appear.
The AVC encode which befits Philomena is quite impressive. The disc juggles 16mm and Super 8 footage in older sequences with the uniquely shot work nicely, and the newer scenes with Coogan and Dench all look clear and sharp, showing facial details in closer shots well and textures and wood grains in slightly wider shots impressively. In peripherally knowing about the story I was pleasantly surprised to see a second unit shot or two outside of Washington D.C. in suburban Maryland and the exteriors even at the 1.78:1 widescreen possess some multidimensional feel to them. All in all stellar stuff from Anchor Bay.
The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is fine though it does occasionally manage to have moments of low-end life to it such as the thud of Martin's car door closing or during a scene with a Ferris wheel in the film's opening moments. The dialogue-driven film is consistent and a pleasant thing to listen to, and directional effects and channel panning are even present at times to help round out a better than expected immersive time with the feature.
Coogan and Pope team up for a commentary for the film where they discuss inclusions and omissions from previous drafts, and Coogan discusses his work in it, along with some anecdotes from meeting with Philomena Lee and with Sixsmith. They spend their fair share of time watching the film, but also toss in some production recall and a stray thought or two on Guinness and whisky. It is a solid track for fans of the film. Next is "A Conversation with Judi Dench" (8:54), where she discusses the personal origins of the acting bug for her and her start in movies and television, along with more modern components such as the choice to cast her as M in the Daniel Craig-era James Bond films. "The Real Philomena Lee" (2:47) shows us the person behind the story as she appears onset and at the film's premiere, and her thoughts on all the fuss. Coogan participates in a Q&A session (24:13) where he discusses how he came to the story, the process in adapting it for film and landing Dench for the role, along with his thoughts on the real-life figures in the story. A code for a digital copy of the film for Ultraviolet completes thing.
Philomena is a fascinating story which includes Judi Dench turning in a performance worthy of her filmography, and Coogan shows a side of his acting ability that many may not be familiar with. Technically, the disc is quite good, and while the disc could have used some more bonus material there is little to have qualms over. If you have seen the movie, by all means I would suggest seeing it again. If you have not seen it yet, remember to pump your arms and legs while running towards your outlet of choice to see it.