Saturday, 19 July 2014

Apes do not want war!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Perhaps the most damning thing one can say about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that, despite featuring 99% less of the ubiquitous James Franco (he’s ubiquitous, so he has to be in there somewhere), it’s not as good as its predecessor.  That’s not fault of the filmmaking, nor the performances, but a script that is unable to strike out beyond the pedestrian premise of “Can warring tribes ever broker lasting peace?” And yet, if ever there was a movie that is more than the some of its parts, this is it. Matt Reeves has made a Planet of the Apes movie to be proud of, and its greatest asset, as with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is the mo-capped apes themselves who engage in much more full-bodied and emotionally satisfying manner than their human counterparts.


This may in part be because what is typed on the page, courtesy of Mark Bomback, (whose patchy career includes of a number of so-so to lame remakes – Total Recall, Race to Witch Mountain – and less than perfectly formed sequels – Die Hard 4.0, The Wolverine) and returning duo Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, can only ever be the loosest of templates as so much must be expressed by body language and on screen interaction. The perfunctory dialogue that mars almost every human relationship is an asset for the apes, as their words are intentionally perfunctory, half-formed or don’t elicit the same “Did he really just say that?” response when subtitled.


The opening titles pick up where the end titles of Rise left off, charting the path of the virus that pegs the demise of humanity. This use of maps to show its progress is effective, the “documentary” footage maybe less so; the inclusion of the current US President is wearily predictable, and has a kind of reverse verisimilitude (you end up wondering what speech they swiped the snippet from). Mainly, its because this summary device has become over-familiar of late; it’s easy to make it work, difficult to make it stand out. We had it a month or so ago in Godzilla, which also gave us its own (localised) post-apocalyptic cityscape. Despite the global events it follows, Dawn’s canvas is altogether smaller than that movie, and not just in screen ratio.  


For the most part these choices of scale make sense, and it’s a better movie when it tries to avoid blockbuster spectacle. This is a more intimate drama; as noted, it depicts rival factions battling over a small area, rather than whole coastlines ripped asunder. I liked the mention of nuclear power stations melting down in the preamble, since this is usually conveniently ignored in tales of survivors of the collapse of civilisation. Less plausible is that none of the humans seem to be suffering ill effects  from this 10 years on. Perhaps they aren’t in a hot spot? I wondered if, the acknowledgement of the nuclear age was a wink to Beneath the Planet of the Apes and its mutant worshippers of the atom bomb (also revisited in the final chapter). I’d be all in favour of the series visiting something so extravagantly sci-fi in a later instalment (I’m doubtful, however, the watchword of these movies so far has been “grounded”). But, as with the humans herded into cages by apes, it’s a nice subtle call back to the originals.


From there we move onto an encounter with Caesar (Andy Serkis, in another outstanding performance; just occasionally, there’s a glimmer of Gollum in there, but what great actor doesn’t tip us his with his tics and rhythms?) and a hunting expedition in which we’re introduced to his main compatriots. I’ll return to that, but the best feature announced in this sequence is the confidence to tell stories in words and pictures rather than dialogue. The contrast with the lack of finesse in the humans’ interactions couldn’t be more acute. They are making a go of things in the ruins of San Francisco, determined to bring power back to their settlement through repairing a hydroelectric dam… that just happens to be in ape territory.


Dawn’s humans can’t cut it, not only against the apes but also in terms of maintaining audience interest. I suspect most would agree that people power isn’t the strongest element of Rise, but this is more down to the anodyne presence of the ubiquitous Franco than anything inherently weak about his character’s relationship with Caesar. Indeed, the plotline involving father John Lithgow is quite touching and well developed. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes might be the first movie in which someone (Caesar) goes into a nostalgic reverie for James Franco, and thusly Gary Oldman’s character may have a point when he denies apes as an intelligent species. Jason Clarke is a much more interesting actor than Franco, but Malcolm is wafer thin in conceptualisation and motivation. He’s the sympathetic human, the surrogate Franco (what a terrible burden!) It was possible to believe in the connection between Caesar and Rodman in Rise, but when Caesar swears friendship to Malcom it comes across as not so much a lapse in judgement (of which more shortly), but premature sincerity as there has been little on screen to justify such depth of feeling. And, for all his qualities as a performer, Clarke as an actor doesn’t give off huggy-feely sincerity.


The other actors playing the humans are also unable to give much substance to their slender characters. Gary Oldman can do little with his protesting-too-much leader. It’s a slightly more youthful Oldman role than of late, but he disappears into it much as he did Commissioner Gordon. There was a time when you didn’t expect less than fireworks from the actor. Now it’s generally surprised if he doesn’t send you into a snooze. You can’t blame him for not being able to make a silk purse out of a character who stubbornly refuses to believe apes are smart, has a token weepy scene over an iPad (that’s his motivation, right there!) and come the end just wants to blow shit up, but Oldman did take the damn dirty part.


Fringe’s Kirk Acevedo at least makes the most of playing up unadulterated anti-ape bigotry, but there’s a fine line between enjoyable cliché and the groan inducing (such as when an adorable CGI baby ape poddles over to his gun-concealing toolbox and Acevedo inevitably goes ballistic at it). Keri Russell is as wholesomely pretty as ever, but entirely redundant while Kodi Smit-McPhee, who looks increasingly like Jay Baruchel’s little brother, gets a nice scene with orang-utan Maurice. Unfortunately, the father-son-surrogate mom dynamic between Lucas, Russell, and Smith-McPhee is lacklustre. The devices used to engender trust and its breaking between apes and humans arrive in a package of maximum familiarity (the humans help Caesar’s wife – thank goodness for human antibiotics!, the humans get trapped in a rock fall but the apes fetch them out – hurrah!) It’s really a tribute to Reeves’ direction that so much of this gets by relatively unscathed. In lesser hands the corn would be dripping from their ears.


But what doesn’t work for the humans does for the apes. The interactions, relieved of the terribly clunky exposition that plagues (particularly Oldman’s) their less hirsute counterparts, are on occasions even subtle. The relationship between Caesar and Koba is especially compelling. The latter, a victim of laboratory cruelty and with the many scars to prove it, is masterfully performed by Toby Kebbell (who looks like he may well break it big in the next couple of years, even if its as pure villainy). Kebbell replaces Christopher Gordon, who played Koba in Rise, and delivers a superbly imagined ape; his features are not unlike those of Spike in Gremlins, midway through his water fountain meltdown at the climax, and Koba’s progress from barely suppressed violence (towards humans, and then apes) and reluctant submission (to Caesar; the hand gestures and body language signifying dominance are marvellous) to out-and-out infamy (his shrewdly executed overthrow is marred only by not hitting his target dead centre).


Whenever Koba is onscreen, all eyes are off Caesar. That’s really an indication of how good Kebbell is. There are some beautifully rendered moments involving the character; the much-trailed sequence in which he overcomes two drunk human guards through putting on a gormless circus ape act is both funny and chilling, his face down of a tank on horseback should be ridiculous but it’s near-sublime. If there’s a criticism, it’s that the writers push the damaged ape into uber-villain territory at the end. He’s crafty enough that he should know killing his own kind in full view, and with considerable panache, is a daft move; the picture arguably doesn’t need this development as there’s sufficient meat in an inevitable showdown with Caesar, and it puts a spotlight on the broad strokes that strong acting and direction have done so much to conceal. Likewise, the fight between Koba and Caesar is an unnecessary set piece too far; I know I’d have been quite satisfied with something a bit more cerebral at this point, rather than giddy acrobatics.


That’s fairly minor criticism set against how good most of the apes material is, though. Karin Konoval (no, I had no idea he was a she) is enormously sympathetic as the huge, sensitive and wise orang-utan Maurice. Nick Thurston has to go through a standard troubled teen plotline as Blue Eyes, Cornelius’ rebellious son, but there’s enough genuine reason to doubt his father to make the journey a convincing one. In contrast, the wonderful Judy Greer gets a non-role as Caesar’s missus.


One of the more intriguing elements of Dawn is that, even though the tale is wholly linear and lacking in depth in terms of its relationships, it gives us a hero protagonist who makes the wrong decisions at almost every turn. Koba may be twisted with hate, but he’s spot-on about the humans’ motivations (for all his nominal good guy status, Malcolm never comes clean with Caesar about what his colleagues are up to; if he had, it might have curtailed Koba’s coup), and Caesar’s forlorn hope that a fragile peace can exist is completely wrong-footed. Even if his deranged lieutenant didn’t hinder Caesar, he’d still face the insurmountable obstacle that Malcolm is very much the exception in terms of humans looking for a peaceful answer. You can’t fault the leader of the apes for reaching for the best of all worlds, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a strong leader. 


By the end he must resort to a technical opt-out as justification for breaking the cardinal ape rule he imposed (Koba isn’t an ape because he doesn’t uphold ape values, the very values Caesar is breaking by killing him). It makes for (hopefully) a more interesting and flawed character in the next sequel; Caesar may be undergoing a Michael Corleone-like arc as he descends into the world of compromises dictated by any seat of power. While it’s a positive that Dawn doesn’t go down the route of installing its main character with easy virtues, one is left wondering how conscious this is and how much a consequence of getting from A to B with the plotting; purely because there is no semblance of nuance elsewhere in the writing.


Reeves' direction is unselfconscious; servicing the story is always at the forefront of his mind, which may be why, even though this is in Real 3D, one is barely aware of the extra dimension. One-time Alan Parker right-hand cinematographer Michael Seresin delivers a dank, rain-drenched landscape of forests and decaying architecture. It’s one in which the CGI additions are nigh seamless. Sure, we’re aware that these aren’t physical creatures (although Maurice and Koba are especially convincing; the closer the animators come to human features the less confident the results are; consequently, Blue Eyes is the weakest of the designs) but, in contrast to many CGI-infested movies, we are so invested in their creations that it scarcely impacts our enjoyment. Michael Giacchino’s score is every bit as good as we’ve come to expect from the composer, who has seamlessly made the jump from TV to movies.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not quite Rise’s equal. It lacks, well, the narrative hook that comes from Caesar’s path to a state of awareness and rebellion. In its place, we are presented with bog standard battling (which is essentially what we saw in the last and meagerest of the original movies). So it’s a testament to Reeves’ work that Dawn gets as close as it does. The disappointing tack for a third instalment would be War of the Planet of the Apes (what with the army on the move at the end of Dawn), since there would be no greater potential for narrative intrigue there than here. The problem with the linear trajectory embraced in this re-envisioning of the series is that the many of the more philosophical concepts have been ironed out along with the jigsaw element of mystery. Rise caught a break with its premise, but someone needs to come on board with a plot the conceptually matches the scope of the material. For now, though, Dawn is much better than anyone might reasonably expect of such a meat-and-potatoes narrative.


***1/2

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

No, I just, like, zoned out for a second.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
(2013)

At least this second big screen adaptation of James Thurber’s short story is no by-the-numbers remake. Unfortunately, few of Ben Stiller’s and writer Steve Conrad’s choices in this very different take to the Danny Kaye original are positive ones. It’s all the more disappointing, as Stiller’s directorial work has been a consistent bright spot in a career frequently marred by a tiresome comedy klutz persona spread across chasm of undifferentiated movies. One suspects the problem may be too little involvement in the screenplay, as on paper at least the writer-director of Zoolander and Tropic Thunder is a good fit for a movie reliant on extravagant fantasy sequences and witty satire. That The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has little of either speaks to something going very wrong at the conception phase.


Of course, one shouldn’t be arguing over what a movie isn’t (compared to, say an original) but rather what it is. And what Walter Mitty 2013 is, is a fantasy (I’d hardly say a comedy, as there are few laughs) of self-actualisation. But self-actualisation where the self-actualiser has little to overcome and precious few markers of a subordinated personality. The substance of Walter Mitty is so paper thin that it must live or die on the cinematography. Stiller makes some of the best looking comedies around, a rarity in the point-and-shoot world of US laughers. Unfortunately, without the chuckles, the images just sit there looking pretty, and, without any real conflict or motivation for our central character, he merely goes through the motions of a wholly undemanding recapturing of his “lost” youth.


I’ve remarked before that I’m not in the anti-remake boat. I don’t think there’s any principle to be adhered to other than: have a good reason to want to do it. Hollywood has been remaking movies and churning out sequels since its inception, but each new generation moans about the practice as if it’s only now marring creativity or adventurousness. There’s no reason not to remake Walter Mitty. The opportunity to take flight in a sporadic fantasy world is ever-relevant and appealing fuel for humorous diversions. And it isn’t as if James Thurber had anything good to say about the 1947 picture, which came a mere eight years after his short story, or The Public Life of Danny Kaye as he maligned it. Thurber wrote a dissatisfied letter to Life magazine on the subject; can it be a coincidence that Stiller’s Mitty works for (the now-defunct) Life? If not, it’s a dubious shout-out; however dismissive of Norman Z McLeod’s film Thurber was, he would surely have been even less pleased with Stiller’s unpersuasively upbeat jolly.


Notwithstanding Thurber’s lack of appreciation, the original ranks among Danny Kaye’s three or four best movies. In it, he is a put-upon escapist proofreader who becomes entangled in a real life adventure and so learns the mettle to deal with life. Thurber includes no such character arc in this story, nor is there any real life drama. One might argue a real world adventure detracts from the fantasy sequences, and the whole point is escapism as a means to avoid life, but without such a device its difficult to see how the brief story could engage as a feature length one. Should Walter Mitty even find a means to triumph in the real world? Even more in Stiller’s version there isn’t a movie if he doesn’t. The fantasy sequences are neither memorable nor clever. There’s nothing even approaching the iconic “ta-pocketa-ta-pocketa-ta-pocketa” found in both the Thurber story and the Kaye movie (even if trying to avoid it, you’d have though Stiller would recognise he needed something just as arresting). It’s all very curious, almost as if he didn’t really have a clue why the original picture and story were appealing in the first place.


It is perhaps understandable the route of having Mitty involved in a criminal plot was avoided, as that is still the standard for any everyman-breaks-out-of-his-boring-world comedy. One suspects this was a fixture throughout the many redrafts and stars and directors throughout the project’s 20 years of development hell. It was a Jim Carrey joint for the longest time (although somehow, somewhere, Eric Bogosian may have been involved even earlier; difficult to countenance, I know), and his directorial partners at various points included Ron Howard (terrible idea, look at the mess he has made of his few fantasy projects), Chuck Russell and Steven Spielberg (superficially a good match, but then recall how successful his only straight remake Always is). Also in the frame along the way were directors Mark Waters and Gore Verbinski (who retains a producer credit) and stars Owen Wilson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Will Ferrell and Mike Myers (the latter two and Carrey are perhaps most appealing to any wanting something of the “Kaye Unleashed” spirit of the original).


Without misdeeds, there must be (mis-) adventures, so Conrad has instead settled on a quest. Walter is a negative asset manager (of the film variety) who is unable to locate the vital negative of star Life photojournalist Sean O’Connell.  Life is set to close shop and continue online only, requiring numerous lay-offs. To facilitate this transition, Adam Scott’s Managing Director Ted Hendricks has been brought in. O’Connell’s picture is destined to be the cover of the last print issue. Unlike Kaye’s Mitty, this Walter has little in the way of encumbrances. His family are doting (mum Shirley MacLaine and supremely irritating sister Kathryn Hahn) and he has the meagerest of crises of confidence in wooing co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig; great, as if that needs to be said, but served a thoroughly undercooked love interest role). It isn’t like Walter’s a failure; O’Connell values him as the master preserver of his work of 16 years standing. His zone-outs, that announce he is off to fantasyland, are relatively unobtrusive. He’s also far from a bumbling fool, as he is a one-time shit-hot skateboard kid.  All that is counting against him is Hendricks being a prick, and it simply isn’t enough to inspire this quest or root for it. He’s doing perfectly well with Cheryl without needing an impetus to boost his confidence.


And so, when he sets of on his mission to track down Sean (I was half expecting there to be no 25th negative; that he had set out a breadcrumb trail to encourage Walter to realise himself, so upfront is the movie about achieving one’s inner unrealised whatever), each new challenge isn’t really much of one. He can leap from helicopters, dodge sharks, skateboard across Iceland, powwow with Afghan warlords. Without breaking a sweat. So what exactly is the picture about again? Where’s the struggle for growth when it’s all there served on a plate?


Conrad wrote the underrated The Weather Man for Verbinksi, so perhaps he came aboard under Gore. Where that picture had a bit of downbeat heart, his Mitty bears more resemblance to the unfiltered feel-good of Pursuit of Happyness. That picture at least had a rags-to-riches trajectory, though. We don’t even superficially care about what Stiller’s Walter has in store. As noted, the fantasy sequences hardly inspire. He saves a dog from a burning building, has a fight (or two) with his boss, appears as a bronzed explorer (recalling Zoolander's Blue Steel/Magnum more than anything, but without raising a smile), has a bizarre (in a woeful, rather that whacky sense) Benjamin Button interlude and shows up on Conan (now, that’s loopy!)


Only one actually has the kind of effect on the plot it should, as he imagines Cheryl singing Space Oddity, which inspires him to board a helicopter. But, by this point, the spectacular scenery, courtesy of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, has taken over and ensures the fantasy holds no precedence. If anything, his world of dreams is weak in comparison. Maybe this is the point, but has Stiller really thought through the message he is sending out? That the only point in dreaming is if you aren’t sufficiently fulfilled? He even says it at the end, when he admits that he has been daydreaming “Lately, less” and the responses is “Good, good”. Is that good? Was Walter suffering from some truly aberrant condition that needed remedy? In Stiller’s mind, yes. But I guess he’s the type of millionaire 40-something who can bring about acute insights through a few skateboard flips against stunning vistas. Speaking of which, the Stretch Armstrong moment in Iceland is frankly baffling. How stupid are Icelanders supposed to be, that they’d exchange a crappy rubber man for skateboard?


It’s surprising that there are so few laughs in here. It’s all utterly sincere, which one would expect to be anathema to Stiller. Scott wrestles a few chuckles from behaving odiously, but Stiller, Wiig, and Patton Oswalt (as an online dating customer relations guy; how much product placement is there in here? On the other hand, does product placement have any effect if you don’t know it’s a real product? I hadn’t even heard of eHarmony before) are in barren territory. Stiller presumably thought all the positive affirmations would be undermined by his usual approach. But this smoothed-out ride limits the picture on every level. When everything comes so easily it can’t really be called a hero’s journey, making the absent of the diversion of laughs all the more glaring. Penn’s rugged explorer comes on as an embodiment of the manly ideal Walter aspires to, but it’s an indifferent piece of casting and undemanding performance.


What the picture does have is visual sense. The imagery is frequently dazzling, with locations, colours and camera speeds that pop off the screen. It’s a shame this skill is in service of something so fragile and undemanding. From Walter running by a wall of Life posters that show him on the covers, to planes taking off on a billboard runway, to Walter skating down a glacier, Stiller the director has a sharp eye for the sumptuous (Penn’s beckoning finger is less effective). He really should direct more. And maybe act less.


There’s something a little repellently self-congratulatory and indulgent about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It’s an admirable piece of technical filmmaking but an almost wholly empty experience. Walter Mitty has no mountain to climb, only a volcano to effortlessly traverse. He needs make no demands on our emotions because Stiller the director is always on hand with a “rousing” piece of soundtrack (Arcade Fire, really?!!) telling us just how he thinks we should feel, and a choice sequence of slow motion to rub it in. This would be stunningly effective, master-manipulative filmmaking if only anyone had remembered to put in anything or anyone to care about.


***


Do you think I should do a human interest story?

Philomena
(2013)

The Oscars’ current dose of Anglophilia can likely be traced back to success of Chariots of Fire and the posture of celebrating English (British) Heritage, but with a twist. The ingredients of Empire may be reclaimed just so long as there’s a fleeting acknowledgment of past lapses. Sumptuous period trappings present older, better eras to hearken back to, but with a twinge of implicit criticism that the mores and values of the day may not have been all that snazzy. Conscience is relived sufficiently to permit the viewer a good wallow in past hues while tutting sagely at the less acceptable side.


Since then, there has been a dance between the more formal rigours of the Merchant Ivory/Laura Ashley school of British cinema and the broader church of contemporary lovable working class comedy-dramas. Philomena falls into the latter canmp, as Oscar Winner Dame Judi Dench’s unaffected OAP is chaperoned by Steve Coogan’s Oxbridge journalist in a quest to find the son who was taken from her many decades before by “evil nuns”. As Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith reluctantly observes, this is a human interest story; its dynamics allow writers Coogan and Jeff Pope to tackle the cynicism behind its telling in a meta-sense; when events don’t pan out in the expected manner we can be moved in a “wholly” genuine way, in the knowledge that the façade as been scraped away to reveal something good within. This isn’t your typical British Oscar bait, except in the sense that it’s typically atypical; it’s the film the ceremony loves to “discover” and give attention far exceeding its modest value. Philomena is a nice little story, crucially a “True Story”, well played by all concerned and with an all-important burst of fire in its belly (railing against injustice; the Academy loves that). The key to its success is its unfiltered niceness, wherein a near-octogenarian uses rude words and rotting pillars of the on-the-way-out establishment receive a much-deserved broadside. Its completely unremarkable nature is no doubt precisely why the Academy saw fit to remark upon it. Perhaps they should have been put off by the charge that the only people who appreciate this kind of story are “weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people” (probably at least two of those charges could be levelled at its members), but since Philomena has shown the savvy of raising that charge it believes it gets a free pass through self-awareness.


For a while there in the ‘90s, it appeared almost as if any British movie could pick up credibility from the awards-givers. The gently provocative pictures of Stephen Frears, the director of Philomena, made his reputation with during the ‘80s (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick up your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) were more prone to BAFTA than Oscar attention (though Laundrette received a screenplay nomination). His first brush with the period piece managed to retain this earlier edge, with a showering of nominations for Dangerous Liaisons (including coveted Best Picture). He retained that bite with The Grifters, a coal-hearted Donald Westlake adaptation, but things turned patchy for him subsequently. Ironically, this was just as Merchant Ivory had peaked (the run of A Room with a View, Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day) and various Brit directors and projects were being feted for a range of conversation-worthy subjects; the must-see twist (The Crying Game), salt-of-the-earth steel workers turn male strippers (The Full Monty) and frightfully funny stammering toff Hugh Grant (Four Weddings and a Funeral). Even Mike Leigh was receiving sporadic veneration for his faux-working class tales of how “real” people live (Secrets & Lies).



Meanwhile Frears had fallen into the Hollywood trap of botched or uncertain prestige projects; Accidental Hero, Mary Reilly, The Hi-Lo Country. He salvaged some credibility with a couple of back-to-basics Roddy Doyle adaptations, but the ‘90s wasn’t his greatest decade as a filmmaker. Since then his path has been a bit of a mess; there’s at least the comfort that he hasn’t one doesn’t quite know what he’ll settle on next. On the downside, he rarely settles on material with great potential. The last time he made anything really impressive was more than a decade ago (High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things). He has settled into the kind of amiable, amenable fare that often features Oscar Winners or nominees (see Dame Judi Dench, see Helen Mirren). Something for a mature audience, with the makings of a mild frisson (Mrs Henderson Presents), or a biopic of that reptilian monarch (The Queen). This lack of daring has brought him two Best Picture nominations (The Queen, Philomena), and there’s no longer any sense that his pictures are worth investigating on his name alone. It says something that a particular as self-consciously lightweight as Tamara Drewe might be his most interesting picture of late. I don’t expect his Lance Armstrong biopic will be revelatory. Philomena is almost wholly anonymous, not that stylistic devices ever announced his pictures; it was more that you could (once) see a running sensibility. Frears is now in the same passive mode as his last Dench collaboration here.


Philomena is at least unassuming. In that sense, like An Education, it doesn’t demand attention. The problem is that when it gets a lot of it, it rather detracts from its unlofty merits. Prestige historicals have reached the stage where we can be shameless manipulated by the disingenuous triumph against adversity theme that can make royalty just like us really (The King’s Speech); if a king can feature in an underdog story, there are few limits to what will work (I guess it works for presidents, so give it a spin). Oscar winning actress Dame Judi Dench’s presence might cynically be seen as keeping an eye on the awards ceremonies just by having her there. But that isn’t so much her fault as that of an industry believing her mere evacuates nuggets of pure gold on a property (Bond).


This time she plays Philomena Lee, a woman who was sent to an Irish abbey in the early 1950s after getting pregnant. Philomena had to work in the laundry to pay her keep, allowed to see her child for an hour a day. Until that is, he is given up for adoption. Philomena didn’t see him again, and kept his existence a secret from her family for 50 years. This role gives Dench extra credit, since the ceremonies are so used to her playing starchy posh bints; here she is down-to-earth, super-polite and full of humility. Philomena likes her romance novels, The Daily Mail and Reader’s Digest (as Sixsmith witheringly summarises).


Instead it’s Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith who is a bit of a stuck-up prick, and the actor is ready and willing to show the character’s less flattering side. After all, Sixsmith, for all his lack of people skills, has righteous anger on his side. As undercooked as the picture’s fury is (it’s much too nice to really get het up), he represents the audience surrogate in responding to the behaviour of the nuns; stoical Philomena may take the high path, but we don’t necessarily think that’s the correct one. In Coogan and Pope’s favour, they don’t succumb to a forced “they become best of friends” relationship between Sixsmith and Philomena. Even if there’s a conciliatory final scene, even at the end she avows her difference to him (“But I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you”). Whether or not we should come down on the side of her attitude or Sixsmith’s articulate fury (“Well, I couldn’t forgive you” he informs vile Sister McNulty) is a debate the film is content not to have; it provides a catharsis in the sister’s presence that didn’t exist in real life (she had died by the time Sixsmith investigate the story) so the priorities are fairly clear.


Sixsmith, who started out as a BBC journalist is, of course, is best known for the controversy that ended his flirtation with New Labour and allegations of attempting to manipulate the media by burying unpopular stories in the wake of 9/11. He went on to indulge his passion for Russian history (lightly mocked here) and offer his services to Armando Iannucci on The Thick of It. Given that he reportedly liked Coogan’s portrayal, and its not the most endearing of portraits, one has to wonder. But Philomena’s unadorned wisdom (“You should be nice to people on the way up as you might meet them again on the way down. Now you of all people should know that”) is rarely less than manufactured, and the picture is unwilling to actually frame Sixsmith down as a full-on manipulator (when he is asked to keep Philomena in the US to find the story, or says he won’t publish, she helpfully provides him with the answer he wants to hear on each occasion).


The trail of deception laid by the sisters of Roscrea to prevent Philomena from reuniting with her son is compelling. The point where the story appears to end actually leads to its most blistering twist; as Sixsmith pointedly asks “It’s not very Christian, is it?” If Philomena provides the acceptance, we side with Sixsmith when he asks, “So what are you going to do? Nothing?” Her dismissal that being as angry as he is must be exhausting doesn’t quite cut it, as someone needs to be. Less well-judged perhaps are Sixsmith’s attacks on belief, mainly because they are so standard issue; he’s better when he sticks to the Church itself, as it’s the institution and its cruelty and avarice that are at the root of the story (“The Catholic Church should go to confession, not you”) We want him to go further, but that’s no doubt why The Magdalene Sisters didn’t receive a brace of Oscar nominations.


The humour of the picture always seems a little broad, from running gags over Philomena’s lack of airs and graces and culture shock (hotel bath robes, Bucks Fizzes, rambling anecdotes, simple openness to others, her lack of surprise on learning her son as a “gay homosexual”) to Sixsmith’s not-actually working for News at Ten. At times you can hear Coogan the comedian too loudly in the writing, although this is never evident in his performance. He is sure and accomplished opposite Oscar-winning powerhouse Dame Judi Dench. Frears’ work is unobtrusive for the most part, although the “in her mind” flashbacks to times past through home movie footage is superfluous and crude.


Coogan seems to be on a bit of a roll at the moment, with choices that emphasise his versatility. He’s making a fist of it on the big screen such that memories of ill-advised transatlantic jaunts (Around the World in 80 Days) are banished. Dench carries so much prestige now, it can be an albatross around the neck of a perfectly likeable little movie.  She’s good, she always is, but that’s the point; you know exactly what you’re getting with her. This is the least of the 2013 Best Picture nominees, which on one level is an indication that there were no stinkers amongst the crop, but it also illustrates that everyone concerned with Philomena had their sights set low; it only wants to be just-a-little thought provoking, just-a-little humorous, just-a-little dramatic. It just wants to be nice.


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