★★★ / ★★★★
A recently unemployed BBC News journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), did not at all want to write a human interest story because he thinks these tend to be about vulnerable, weak-minded, and ignorant people. But after hearing an old Irish woman’s story about having a baby as a teenager and then the nuns giving her child away, Martin takes on the assignment and agrees to aid Philomena (Judi Dench) in locating her son.
When the words “inspired by a true story” graced the black screen during the opening credits, a sinking feeling bore in my stomach. “It’s another one of those,” according to my brain, so tired of being disappointed by so many bad movies that are supposedly inspired by or based on true stories.
But “Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears, is head and shoulders above many of them. It is told with class and elegance sans sensationalism or relying on sentimentality. If it had been helmed by lesser hands, given its premise, it would likely have turned into a syrupy Lifetime movie where behavior takes precedence over the inner thoughts and feelings of its main players. Dench and Coogan play their characters exactly right: as real people from which the story is inspired by.
What is left to say about the great Judi Dench? Her performance is excellent. I loved and felt privileged for being able to look at her face and feeling every bit of the character’s shame, frustration, fears, and agony. Alongside Frears’ direction, the extra seconds when the camera simply lingers on the master’s wrinkly face allows us time to absorb Philomena’s inner struggle and to try to imagine how it must be like for her to not know what has happened to her son for half a century. Dench is such an ace performer that a well-timed blink or the manner in which she exhales can have so much effect on a shot.
I have always seen Coogan as a comedian more than actor although I know the two need not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps it is because he appears in a lot of comedic pictures. Regardless, I have always found his performances rather one-note, repetitive, and at times unrelentingly dull. Here, although the actor has funny bits, the camera does not fixate on how funny he is. In addition, I believed that Coogan is playing a character here: someone who wishes to restore his name as a journalist and yet someone who hopes to do the right thing. It helps that the screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope does not beat us over the head with Sixsmith’s goals, personal and professional, as well as possible ulterior motives.
The picture is beautifully shot. Whether it be inside a small, darkly lit local pub or a very spacious airport (accompanied by a hilarious description of what happens in a romance novel that the title character is just about finished reading—my favorite scene), the movement of the camera is fluid, never drawing attention away from conversations between the reporter and his subject. Human connection is highlighted with consistency and so we are naturally drawn to the conflict that drives the drama.
Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) wished to write a book about British playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman) so he set up an appointment with Orton’s friend and agent Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave). Initially, Peggy hid Orton’s diary, which consisted of important details about his life as a homosexual and relationship with a lover, Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), but the theater critic eventually won her over. As John and Peggy discussed Orton’s life and accomplishments, we were allowed to observe the elements that led up to his brutal murder. Based on a the book by John Lahr and written for the screen by Alan Bennett, “Prick Up Your Ears” captured the painful reality of the past in having to hide one’s nature from society that deemed homosexuality was not only immoral and a sin but a disease that had to be purged. I noticed that a lot of the characters hid their fears and failure/unwillingness to understand homosexuality by not wanting to talk about it or, if the issue came up, rerouting the conversation into a more “acceptable” topic. The adults certainly didn’t want children to hear what being gay meant just in case the word itself could “turn” kids into degenerates. It was interesting that the physical act of gay bashing wasn’t there but the words and intonations in the characters’ voices when sharing how they felt about homosexuality didn’t make the experience any less maddening. For me, although the film was a biography, the tone inspired me to focus on feelings such as anger and rebellion with occasional humor right around the corner. These feelings were personified in scenes when Joe and Kenneth shared their first sexual moment while watching the Queen being officially given power to lead her country on television. To rebel was to be free and Orton knew this well. Despite being in a committed relationship, he felt the need to seek excitement in men’s restrooms. Orton, so focused on his needs as a man and who relished in being constantly under the spotlight, ignored the fact that his lover was deeply unhappy. Orton’s lack of perceptiveness provided a rich human drama without relying on too much sentimentality. As the picture went on, it became obvious that their issues could be applied to all couples. Molina was very convincing as a troubled man who didn’t feel appreciated. His neediness got on my nerves and I think that was the point. Kenneth knew that Joe thought he was, essentially, a joke. For example, when Kenneth decided to buy a wig due to an early onset of baldness, Joe mocked him. They were cruel to one another and, for most of the time, it seemed like they only needed each other for sex. So it begged the question why they were in a relationship in the first place. The answer was embedded when they would laugh together, when they both were on the same level of happiness in a specific moment in time. I was convinced that they shared a history, that when they met they were a good fit for each other, and despite their rotting relationship, they still loved each other in the most rudimentary way. Directed by Stephen Frears, “Prick Up Your Ears” offered multilayered performances from Molina and Oldman. In a way, it showcased potential problems that could arise in all relationships. In the end, I couldn’t help but wonder why some couples who used to look into each other’s eyes with nothing but love and adoration could turn into a couple with nothing but disdain for one another.
Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
★★ / ★★★★
Written by Steven Knight and directed by Stephen Frears, “Dirty Pretty Things” is about two illegal immigrants (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou) who work in a fancy hotel in London and get caught in an underground business run by their boss (Sergi López). This was supposed to be a thriller but I didn’t find anything particularly thrilling about it. I think it tried too hard to hide its secret underground happenings to the point where I found myself not knowing where the story was going. After it introduced particular events that could potentially drive the plot forward, it was followed by uneventful fifteen- to twenty-minutes. One of the few things I liked about it, however, was the way it showed illegal immigrants in the work place. While It was an effective drama, it considerably weaker in its thriller aspect. A third variable was the potential romance between Ejiofor and Tautou. It’s strange because I don’t know what to think of it. They didn’t exactly have chemistry together but it was nice to see them interact either when they were just talking or were sitting in silence. Overall, I think this film was misdirected and miscast. Not to mention it tried way too hard to inject various storylines; it made me feel like it simply did not have enough courage to tackle the main issue head-on. If it had focused on the underground activities that not many people know about, I think I would have been more interested. With two main characters who were easy to root for, if they had been placed in more dangerous situations, the script would’ve popped instead of imploding upon itself. I’ve heard a number of critiques regarding this picture and more than half of them were impressed with the “surprise” ending. Personally, I wasn’t that surprised because it was not particularly original. I’ve seen such an ending from a lot of similar but better films so I was not at all impressed. It left me unsatisfied but I was glad to see Tautou play someone who was a little more damaged and vulnerable than her other roles.