An emotional British/Irish drama directed by Stephen Frears, based on a heartbreaking true story, and featuring Judi Dench in the title role, the film adaptation of Philomena was destined for attention. And it is a solid enough drama, worth a watch - it's just that the film is so clearly less valuable than its components, the combination of which ensured it was catapulted into awards contention anyway.
That's not to say Philomena doesn't give you a giggle or encourage a few tears while uncovering a story which deserves to be told, but it does beg the question: what story is it trying to tell? A number of important issues, worthy of exploration, are thrown up in the course of Philomena's journey to find her long-lost son - yet the film skims over them. At times it seems the story is guided by the emotive Oscar nominated score, rather than the other way around.
The culture clash between sweet, disenfranchised Philomena and the arrogant journalist, Sixsmith, is played out for laughs, rather than a lingering symptom of the class system which is partly responsible for Philomena's troubles in the first place. A meal is made out of Sixsmith's emotional growth, but said 'growth' boils down to scenes of him tolerating conversation he doesn't enjoy and the massive sacrifice of deciding (twice!) to accede to Philomena's wishes, which (twice!) she's naturally already aligned to match his. Not much of an evolution.
Wrapped at the core of the film is fact that women and children were treated extremely badly by institutions like the Catholic Church, which ruined lives and created tragedies under the guise of helping the vulnerable. But the Church does not have a monopoly on causing pain: the ongoing efforts of these mothers and their children to find each other should certainly be recognised, as should human rights abuses all around the world.
The difference in this story, and where the film could have elevated itself on its own merits, is the attitude of Philomena Lee to her personal experience. She comes to a conclusion stunning in its simplicity, which could have been the whole point of the film - but it's wasted, the important moment immediately numbed by cheap emotion, then comedic babble. It's hard not to be cross with a film which could have been even better than its reputation, but which, despite laughing at pop culture, still chose commercial sentimentality over considered reflection.
Another well-regarded film based on a true story and featuring Judi Dench is Iris, a love story through life, which is not an easy watch, but features superlative performances from four fantastic actors all at their very best. Co-starring Jim Broadbent in an Oscar-winning role, supported by Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville.