Thursday 31 October 2013

Film Review: Philomena (dir. Frears, 2013)

From Chika Anadu’s great B For Boy to Anne Fontaine’s risible Adore motherhood proved to be the focus of a number of films in this year’s London Film Festival. Another notable connecting thread in this year’s fest was the resurgence of the buddy-buddy road movie in various guises, an aspect of works as diverse as Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Arthur Landon’s Side By Side and Pawel Pawlikowski’s prize-winning Ida.

Stephen Frears’s latest, Philomena, combines both elements, focusing on the search of an Irish Catholic woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), for the son she was forced to give up for adoption as an unwed teenager fifty years before. Alas, for all the acclaim that the film’s receiving, and for all that it’s inspired by emotive true events, Frears’s movie struck me as one of the more bogus and disappointing of the Festival’s major offerings.
Philomena’s quest to discover her son’s fate leads her from rural Ireland (where she’s meeting a wall of silence from religious authorities) to Washington D.C., in the company of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the ex-BBC journo down on his luck after an unfortunate leaked comment, who becomes interested in Philomena’s story despite his initial disdain for “human interest” journalism. Adapted by Coogan and Jeff Pope from Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film makes Philomena and Sixsmith’s double-act the focus, with the characters’ contrasting personalities – he Oxbridge, cynical, bolshie, atheist; she warm, curious, commonsensical, and, despite her experiences, still devoutly Catholic – played for plentiful odd couple comedy. The film also works out an irresistible parallel between the conservatism of fifties Ireland and eighties America and its effects on mother and son.

It’s a compelling story, no doubt, but one that sadly flounders due to the movie’s recourse to spelling-it-out obviousness at every single stage. With Philomena Frears has fashioned the kind of film in which everything is on the surface, every emotional beat emphasized in the King’s Speech manner. My feelings of foreboding about the director’s approach set in early, in a poor and painfully exposition-heavy opening sequence that clumsily sketches out Sixsmith’s past via TV news footage. And they were confirmed by the overwrought flashbacks showing Philomena’s parturition (“The pain is her punishment!” hisses one of the nasty nuns in a classic camp moment) and separation from her son. An example of Frears’s technique here: an early scene presents Sixsmith leaving a Christmas service as he tells his wife “I don’t believe in God” (information that you might think she’d already know). It’s followed immediately by a scene of Philomena reverently lighting a candle in church. Yes, the movie is really that crude and clunky in establishing its protagonists and their contrasting belief systems.
With weakly-drawn supporting characters disappearing as soon as they’ve served their plot function, Philomena is pretty much the Dench ‘n’ Coogan Show throughout and your response to it will doubtless depend on how delightful you deem their double act to be. Personally. I found myself resisting it. The fault, for me, lies mostly in Coogan and Pope’s script which, from an early “stool” gag onwards, too often opts for quipping over emotional insight and milks Philomena and Sixsmith’s interaction for crowd-pleasing comedy. It’s meant to be hilarious (and certainly a lot of viewers seemed to find it so) when Philomena pops out words like “bi-curious” and “clitoris” or alleges that homosexuality can be determined by a penchant for dungarees. At times, indeed, the film comes dangerously close to being a variant on The Trip with Dench replacing Rob Brydon. And when, in a religion-themed barney, Philomena tells Sixsmith that God would likely think the journalist “a feckin’ eejit” it’s the sorry spirit of Mrs. Brown’s Boys that’s looming large. It’s as if Frears, Coogan and Pope were screeching at the viewer: “You might have thought the subject matter was grim, but don’t worry. Look how funny we’re making this!"

Though the inadequate script does precisely nothing to give us a sense of Philomena’s life between the separation from her son and her present-day quest for him Dench, consummate actress that she is, brings some believable shadings to her characterisation, even when Coogan and Pope have Philomena twittering adorably about free transatlantic aeroplane drinks or the size of American buffet breakfasts. Alas, Coogan, who I’ve admired in films including Happy Endings and What Maisie Knew, is a singularly unappealing presence here, and by the time his Sixsmith is facing off with the nun responsible for Philomena’s tragedy (Barbara Jefford, playing as grim-faced a battle-axe as she did in The Deep Blue Sea) I found myself errantly hoping that the woman would rise from her wheelchair and smack him - such is the transparency and obviousness of the film’s Catholicism critique.
Frears certainly moves the movie along at a clip, but there’s a price to be paid for the film’s paciness: the whole thing feels superficial and just doesn’t go deep enough for the pain of parent/child separation that it’s meant to be exploring to really resonate. As a result Philomena has the quick-fix sketchiness of journalism or sitcom but gets nowhere near the richness of art. And as for that poster... Well, feck.
Philomena is on general UK release from 1 November.

Monday 28 October 2013

Theatre Review: The Middlemarch Trilogy: Dorothea’s Story (Orange Tree)

Photo: Robert Day 
Following Springs Eternal, the Orange Tree’s ambitious project to stage George Eliot’s Middlemarch as a centrepiece of Sam Walters’s final season gets underway with Dorothea’s Story. Writer/director Geoffrey Beevers has adapted Eliot’s text into three separate but interconnected productions which will run until February next year. Each of the three shows – The Doctor’s Story and Fred and Mary are to follow - takes a strand of the novel as its focal point and the trilogy can be viewed in any order or seen in one go on select dates from late December. As its title suggests this first instalment focuses upon the marriage of Eliot’s heroine Dorothea to the dry academic Casaubon and Dorothea’s gradual, growing attraction to Casaubon’s younger cousin Will Ladislaw. And while the production has some shortcomings, at its best it’s a distinctive, highly theatrical adaptation, and an engaging and promising start to the Trilogy overall.

Beevers has form as an adaptor of Eliot: his takes on Adam Bede and Silas Marner have been staged at the OT in previous years. But, as he acknowledges in the programme essay, Middlemarch is a more challenging proposition: a less overtly “dramatic” narrative of interconnected lives in a provincial town in the 1830s, lives that Eliot explores with a scrupulous attention that the critic Kate Briggs has likened to that of a scientist examining “the tiny, interconnecting veins of a leaf through the lens of a microscope.” Eliot’s intricate focus on the interior worlds of her characters is a challenge for the stage, and it’s one that Beevers’s production attempts to meet by having the actors break off from the dialogue exchanges to speak their characters’ thoughts and feelings in third-person to the audience. This device gives the proceedings a decidedly arch tone that doesn’t always sit well with the novel’s moral seriousness: at first, the production seems more Austen than Eliot in its emphasis on irony and social comedy.

But the production’s approach becomes more beguiling as the evening progresses and the artifice of aspects of the concept (such as some early Woman in Black-style business) is transcended. Necessarily eschewing an opulent heritage take on the text, Beevers instead opts for sparseness and spryness throughout. Scene shifts are super-swift and Sam Dowson’s design conjures interior and exterior spaces with a bare minimum of props. The lights are often left up, and, between their scenes, the actors take a casual pew amongst the audience, becoming onlookers.

While this doesn’t add up to the detailed social picture that the novel (or Andrew Davies’s great 1994 BBC adaptation) provided it does allow the emotional content of the text to resonate; the dynamics of the Casaubons’s miserable marriage and Dorothea’s connection to Will are drawn with particular insight. The political context is sketchier, but the hard-working cast – by turns protagonists, narrators and observers – do succeed in suggesting a community. Georgina Strawson brings the right kind of earnestness and idealism to Dorothea, subtly engaging our emotions so that it’s a powerful moment when the character belatedly drops to the floor to weep. Jamie Newall makes the pursed cold fish Casaubon an oddly captivating presence. Ben Lambert contributes an attractive Will, Christopher Ettridge a hearty Mr. Brooke and Liz Crowther a wily, funny Mrs. Cadwallader. And throughout Beevers skilfully keeps the characters in balance so that we have hints of the dramas occurring for, say, the doctor Lydgate (David Ricardo-Pearce) on the periphery of Dorothea’s story. The evening is lengthy (another near three-hour OT marathon) but lively, and the viewer leaves eager to see the rest.

The productions are booking until 1st February. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Monday 21 October 2013

LFF 2013: My London Film Festival Reviews (II)

Here are the links to my second set of London Film Festival reviews. (The first set can be read here.) More - including Philomena, Ida and Saving Mr. Banks - to follow in the coming weeks.

Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)

B For Boy (dir. Chika Anadu)

Mother of George (dir. Andrew Dosunmu)

Side By Side (dir. Arthur Landon)

Saturday 12 October 2013

LFF 2013: My London Film Festival Reviews (I)

The 2013 London Film Festival is underway. You can read my coverage (so far) below. More to come next week.