Philomena (The Weinstein Company, PG-13)

Philomena 75The film’s a brisk and enjoyable 98 minutes, and it seems likely to be the best choice if you need a film to go see with your parents over the holidays.

Philomena 500

Here’s a good example of when it really pays off to pay attention to directors. On the surface, Philomena looks like a movie suitable only for old white ladies — it’s British, stars Judi Dench, and is being released by the Oscar-whore Weinstein Company right in the middle of Oscar season. But look, it’s directed by Stephen Frears! I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t know his name, as his directorial stamp isn’t as clear as a lot of his peers’, but I bet you’ve seen his movies: The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, My Beautiful Laundrette among them. You’ll notice that those four movies have very little in common, and all of them are good; Frears is one of those directors who always seems to crank out good movies, regardless what genre he’s in.

Philomena is no exception. The film is based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a true story by Martin Sixsmith, who was a fallen reporter of the BBC who turned to a human interest piece in an attempt to rebound his career. That book and this film concern Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) helping the elderly Philomena (Dench) track down her long-lost son, who was taken from her at a convent and sold to wealthy Americans when she was a teenager in Ireland. Again, I can hear you thinking that this sounds boring or schmaltzy or both, but it isn’t really; you should trust Stephen Frears. Think of it as something of a buddy road trip comedy rather than a tear-jerking movie about a woman who lost her son, and you’re on the right track.

Also, you should trust Steve Coogan, who was a co-writer on the film (alongside Jeff Pope). Of course, Coogan is one of the best comic actors in England right now, and his touch helps to keep Philomena from becoming the type of film it sounds like. While Coogan himself plays the character of Sixsmith as a relative straight man (it’s Philomena who’s the daffy one, but in a believable, charming way), the screenplay has its share of laughs and keeps pretty far from being sappy and manipulative.

And of course there’s also the issue that the story the screenplay is adapted from is a pretty great one; it’s one of those films that would feel very contrived if it were a fiction film, but since the contrivances happened in real life you’re much more able to just go with it. The film’s a brisk and enjoyable 98 minutes, and it seems likely to be the best choice if you need a film to go see with your parents over the holidays. | Pete Timmermann

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