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Film Review: Philomena

After having a child out of wedlock, Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench) was forced to give up her son by Catholic nuns. 50 years laters, journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) hears about Philomena’s story and helps her to search for her long-lost son.

When I wrote my review of Danish film The Hunt, I said that it made me incredibly angry, an emotion that very few films have evoked in me. However, it didn’t take too long for another film to do the same, and Philomena left me seething as I walked out of the cinema.

Philomena is another of those films inspired by a true story – it’s based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Steve Coogan’s character, journo Martin Sixsmith – and it’s this that makes the film all the more harrowing.

Without wanting to spoil anything, the film has its highs and lows, with certain groups portrayed less than favourably, namely journalists and the Catholic Church, and it’s the latter from which my anger emanated (although it’s not totally one-sided). What’s excellent, however, is that it doesn’t ram a particular message down your throat and, for the most part, lets you draw your own conclusions and pick your own side. At times it does feel slightly manipulative in trying to make you feel sympathy for Philomena when it really doesn’t need to; the general story does that by itself.

The two central performances of Dench and Coogan are fantastic and play off brilliantly against one another. For much of the film, they are very much ice and fire personalities, with Philomena’s simple, perhaps naïve, view of the world contrasted with Sixsmith’s much more negative (albeit probably realistic) view.

Despite the title, Philomena is just as much Sixsmith’s story as the titular character’s. At the film’s outset, we see him unsure of whether he’d stoop as ‘low’ as a human interest story but by the end we really see a transformation, and it really adds an extra dimension to the film. It would have been easy to just solely focus on Philomena but Sixsmith’s story is almost as compelling.

And what’s somewhat surprising is just how funny the film is. Coogan’s touch is all over the script (some lines could come straight out of Alan Partridge) and both main characters get their fair share of laugh-out-loud lines. It’s similar in subject matter to Peter Mullen’s excellent The Magdelene Sisters but comes at it from a much more light-hearted (but no less heart-wrenching) angle. This humour is needed, too; without it, the film could be very dour and a little too heavy, so kudos to Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope for getting the balance just right.

After watching Philomena, you’ll likely side with one of the two main characters (I certainly did), and it’s this duality that the film hammers home, which should ensure almost everyone will come away with a different experience and opinion. It’s not always the happiest of films, but it’s filled with heart and at its most effective is one of the most powerful films of the year.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Skyfall

As the 50th anniversary film of England’s most famous secret agent, it was important that Skyfall, the 23rd in the series, did the franchise justice. Many hailed the return of Bond with Daniel Craig’s first outing in Casino Royale but it took a big step back with the incredibly underwhelming Quantum of Solace. Now Skyfall has finally hit screens after being dogged by studio problems, it gives fans a perfect anniversary celebration whilst offering plenty to keep the series moving forward.

After Bond is accidentally ‘killed’ trying to retrieve a stolen list of embedded NATO operatives, M (Judi Dench) comes under pressure to resign. However, when an explosion at MI6 kills eight people, Bond resurfaces to protect her from cyber terrorist Silva (Javier Bardem) who is making her face up to her past.

Skyfall moves away from the Quantum storyline of the previous two films, acting as a standalone piece whilst still retaining the gritty feel and realism that distinguished them from pre-Craig films. Some have said that it doesn’t feel like a Bond film, but it features everything that makes Bond such a beloved franchise. There are car chases, shoot-outs, great cars, a superb villain, and a Bond girl (although maybe not the one you might expect), but updated for this generation. Only perhaps on the gadgets side of the things does the film lose its roots, but, again, this is part of the new direction the films are being taken in and is something that is specifically referenced in Bond’s conversation with the new Q (Ben Wishaw).

It’s an important direction that the films are going in. The last of the Brosnan films were pretty terrible and a re-imagining was sorely overdue. Casino Royale brought a more realistic Bond and Skyfall is a further extension of that. Bond’s humour is darker with fewer pithy quips (those that are there now feel somewhat out of place) and he’s now more rugged action hero than suave super spy. This may irk some but Bond films are a product of their time and it simply wouldn’t be possible to create a film nowadays that felt exactly the same as those from the Connery, Moore or even Dalton era. Skyfall manages to take just enough from its predecessors to feel loyal but presents a refreshing take on the Bond formula.

The opening scene of a Bond film has a certain responsibility to be exhilarating and exciting and Skyfall’s doesn’t disappoint. There are guns, bikes, cars, trains, the lot. Following this, however, the film struggles to find its feet a little and does plod along at times. That is until we meet Silva and we’re treated to arguably the best villain intro in a Bond film yet. Javier Bardem is superb as Silva, perfectly encapsulating what it is to be a classic Bond villain but also giving it his own spin. Silva’s opening scene is also yet another example of how far the series has come – no spoilers here, but it includes a moment that would never have happened in Bond films of the past.

Bardem is a scene stealer and his interactions with Bond and M are some of the finest moments in the film. He manages to invoke the creepiness and sinister side of his role as Anton Chigurh in the Coen brother’s  No Country For Old Men, whilst still managing to retain a  However, whilst his backstory is integral to the film’s overall narrative, it’s perhaps not quite as developed as it could be. He’s an incredibly intriguing character, but a little more character development and exposition could have made his motives and relationships that bit more effective.

Skyfall is more character driven than perhaps any other Bond film, particularly in its second half. However, this in some way negates much of the work done in the first half. With talk of lists of secret agents and cyber terrorism in the film’s first hour or so, these become incidental to other events later on to such an extent that they do feel like a little forgotten. This does make the film feel slightly disjointed but if these aspects are treated as merely a set up rather than integral to the plot then it really doesn’t become a problem.

Despite the many dissenters upon Daniel Craig’s announcement as Bond following Brosnan’s departure, it didn’t take him long to settle into the role and, again, he provides another excellent, high octane performance. However, it’s the subtleties he brings to the role that enable him to stake a claim for the best Bond yet. A wry smile here, an adjustment of the cufflinks there, and also a fragility that reminds us that he is human after all. Skyfall also marks the seventh film for Judi Dench as M and this is finally her time in the spotlight. She has a much more involved role than in any of her previous Bond films, so much so, in fact, that this is perhaps just as much her story than anyone else’s. Ben Wishaw as the real successor to Desmond Llewelyn as Q is also worthy of a mention and looks set to be a notable addition to the series.

Something that can’t go without praise is the stunning cinematography of Roger Deakins. From Shanghai to Scotland we are treated to a a rich and visually arresting mise-en-scene that results in a Bond film that looks head and shoulders above the rest. Simply put, Deakins’ cinematography is just as important to Skyfall as any other element, be that the villain, the cars or James Bond himself.

Skyfall very much feels like a celebration of all things Bond from over the past 50 years. There are nods to several previous films which, although might send the heads of those looking for a coherent Bond timeline into a spin, add a layer of pleasing fan service and pangs of nostalgia. Is this the best Bond film yet? Well that, just as whether Craig is the best Bond, purely comes down to personal preference, but there can be no doubt that it’s one of the highlights of the entire series and a perfect way to mark half a century of being licensed to kill.

Chris

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