Reviewed By Daniel Kelly
Posted 12/10/13 18:33:53

"Alpha Mama"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Ten years ago director Stephen Frears was atop the world, churning out a series of successes on both sides of the Atlantic. Recently the film-maker’s output has taken a less inspired turn; with last year’s universally maligned “Lay the Favourite” an apt representative of his current fortune. “Philomena” resuscitates Frears’s slightly, at least allowing him the benefit of an engaging screenplay and a chance to work with an explosive performer like Judi Dench, the director envisioning a well-crafted sob story with lashings of social angst. It’s no masterpiece, but the feature captures a natural storytelling flow, handling rather dramatic shifts in tone confidently. It’ll probably be your grandmother’s new favourite film.

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is a disgraced government advisor looking to get back to his journalistic roots, hoping to uncover a scintillating puff-piece to rejuvenate his professional standing. By chance he encounters Philomena (Judi Dench) an elderly Irishwoman with a story, that of her lost son Anthony. In her teens Philomena had pre-marital sex; the result a pregnancy out of wedlock. The Nuns in her convent shipped the child off to a mystery family; leaving Philomena to live her life with no knowledge of Anthony’s whereabouts, desperate to ignite a familial connection. Martin agrees to write an article on Philomena’s tale of woe, saddling up with his subject on a trip that takes them from Ireland to America in pursuit of answers.

The film is based on harrowing events and upholds a respectful tone as a consequence, painting a stoic picture of the titular character. Sixsmith’s 2009 memoir is the chief influence, so “Philomena” has been assembled on the pretence of first person authority, yet there’s something inherently Hollywood-ised about the product - perhaps it’s the saintliness the screenplay bestows upon Philomena or indeed the vibrant bounding between comedy and heighted drama - whatever the case it’s no surprise the tale should have found its way onto screens and more tellingly into an awards race. “Philomena” is a finely tuned piece with an absolutely stonking finish, but aside from some graceful theatrics and the outstanding thespian contribution, it all just feels the right side of ordinary. In a year where it has to do battle with “Gravity” and “Nebraska”, “Philomena” is short on dynamism.

The characterisation is faultless, Coogan and chiefly Dench essaying their parts with regal finesse. The latter is probably the closest thing the picture has to a secret weapon, oscillating through a range of subtly articulated moods, culminating in a brave and challenging stand-off with those responsible for her misery. The juxtaposing worldviews of Philomena and Martin form a fundamental strand of the picture’s DNA, helping to structure a jovial chemistry and encourage the exploration of deeper themes. “Philomena” has religion and integrity at its heart, throwing in Martin’s predatory tabloid instincts to further flavour the broth. The movie asks us to appreciate conviction, even if it’s not always in the best interests of everyone, a fascinating stance given the revelations at the movie’s end. It’s not pro-religion or anything of the sort, but the completion of the character arcs and idolisation of Dench’s role lead me to believe it sees true value in having beliefs, not just cynical 21st century intuition.

Frears’ cinematography tends to reflect atmosphere brashly (the tragic end is coated in layers of frost) but “Philomena” does have a polished look and tender score courtesy of Alexandre Desplat. This British production brushes the heartstrings during its smartly constructed 98 minutes, occasionally soliciting a tear or tickling out a laugh. Yet, “Philomena” never generates anything beyond moderate goodwill and a pleasurable viewing experience, leaving its formidable leading lady to sporadically make something special of proceedings. [B]

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