Philomena is the kind of movie that compels a reviewer to say what it isn’t before trying to say what it is. That’s because the bare bones of its plot suggest the very sort of entertainment the filmmakers have carefully avoided making.
The eponymous heroine of this true story is an elderly Irish woman (Judi Dench) yearning to get in touch with the child she birthed in the early 1950s, when she was one of the so-called Magdalene girls in the stern charge of Sisters of Mercy. The nuns assisted in the delivery of illegitimate babies, then put the young unwed mothers to punishing work in the convent while often handing over their infants to childless Americans in return for substantial donations. Getting no help in finding her grown-up child from the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Philomena turns to Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist who became a spin doctor for Tony Blair’s government before being dismissed for an inappropriate comment. Sixsmith hopes that writing a sentimental exposé about Philomena’s plight will help rehabilitate his career. He accompanies her to the United States, where they learn that her son Anthony grew up to become the highly successful Michael Hess, a legal adviser to Presidents Reagan and Bush senior, and also a closeted gay man who died of AIDS after faithfully serving a regime that refused funding for AIDS research.
Given this scenario, you might have expected one of those movies that jerk tears while reaffirming “the greatness of the human spirit”—or, perhaps, an angry exposé of the Catholic Church. But no. Though it is clear about the wrongs done and gives us a touching portrait of a questing mother, Philomena turns out to be dry-eyed, witty, and compassionate without ever getting weepy. Essentially, it’s a comedy about a mismatched couple whose shared adventure does nothing to reconcile clashing temperaments and opposed beliefs. Philomena, who goes by “Phil,” is a radically simple soul who can never acquire Martin’s sophisticated understanding of the way institutions often work at the expense of individuals. (Having been a spin doctor himself, Martin spots the new convent superior as one more of the breed.) For his part, Martin can never summon up the compassion for all human frailty that leads Philomena to forgive the one nun who survives from the bad old days, now a senile crone whom Sixsmith would like to tip out of her wheelchair when she spews forth her fiercely clung-to bigotry. Philomena’s forgiveness isn’t motivated by any hope for change in her former tormentor but by the instinctive insight that personal hatred shrivels the soul. “I’m still angry!” shouts Martin at the climax, but Philomena, a stranger to both priggishness and rancor, can only wonder at his self-corrosive bitterness.
Written by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan (who also plays Sixsmith) and directed by Stephen Frears, Philomena possesses a wonderful balance of feeling for its two protagonists. Neither script nor direction plays favorites, but, by constantly shifting from one viewpoint to the other, the film has us smiling with compassion at the foibles of both characters. Sixsmith, something of a highbrow, must endure Philomena’s preference for chain restaurants and her relentless recounting of the plots of Harlequin romances. When, after an exhaustive and exhausting summary of her latest paperback, she offers it to him, his reply—“Gosh, I feel as if I’ve almost read it”—makes us laugh, but her abiding innocence keeps us from feeling superior. On the other hand, innocence has its limitations. While Philomena is too easily placated by the convent superior’s smarmy “We can’t take away your pain but we can walk you through it,” Martin can see right through the blarney. Philomena needs his savvy, and he comes to respond to her peculiar goodness.
Sometimes the comedy modulates into something more mysterious, as when the search leads our couple to a female colleague of the dead Michael, who cautiously inquires whether Philomena knows that her son was gay. Not immediately responding to that, Philomena asks if Michael had any children, which makes Sixsmith assume that this “little old Irish lady” (as Sixsmith’s wife calls her) simply doesn’t grasp the modern meaning of “gay.” Yet a moment later, Philomena calmly refers to her son as a “gay homosexual” and the redundancy, comic though it is, leads the journalist (and us) to suspect that Philomena might be much better informed and more broad-minded than anyone suspected. But is she really? When Martin questions her about a clue he’s spotted in an old photo—the son’s lapel pin in the shape of an Irish harp—Philomena replies, “Well, maybe he played the harp. After all, he was gay."
Stephen Frears’s direction is the simplest of his career. Grasping that the film’s success depends entirely on our enjoying the company of the two beguiling protagonists, he keeps his camera on the right face at the right moment. The actors do the rest.
Critics speak about the autumnal grandeur of “lateness in art”—the tranquil power of Beethoven’s late quartets or the swan-song poignancy of Verdi’s Falstaff. Judi Dench has that quality as an actress nowadays, and it’s not just an inevitable feature of her old age. She’s in possession of a still center, and from that center she radiates. But the critical praise heaped on Dench shouldn’t keep us from noticing that Steve Coogan’s wry underplaying of Sixsmith makes Dench’s beatific comedy possible. With his boredom-glazed eyes desperately beseeching invisible gods for mercy as she blathers on and on, and his smooth baritone subtly inflected by covert sarcasm, Coogan is the Oxbridge Oliver Hardy to her female Stan Laurel. And would Stan be truly funny without Ollie?
It was appropriate that Philomena became the surprise hit of the Christmas season, for, paradoxically, with this story premised on the cruelty of a Catholic institution, the filmmakers have created the most Christian film since Tender Mercies.
LIKE PHILOMENA, Saving Mr. Banks also features two great actors playing comically mismatched protagonists. As P. L. Travers—the author who arrives at Disneyland in 1961 to hear Walt’s plans to put her Mary Poppins stories on screen—Emma Thompson confirms that she is the best movie actress in the English-speaking world. As Disney, Tom Hanks proves that he is that rarity in Hollywood: a star who is also a character actor. (Paul Giamatti, who contributes another of his gems as Travers’s chauffeur, is a great actor who will never quite be a star.)
In Thompson’s portrayal, Travers is the embodiment of all those newly emancipated women of her generation who had to prove themselves, in the academic or literary world, to be just as literate, strong-minded, and exacting as the men. Visiting the Leviathan of Vulgarity that is (in her eyes) America/California/Disneyland, Travers has all the narrow-eyed disdainfulness of an Oxford don entering a cage of feces-throwing monkeys. Her voice is soaked in an acid concocted of defensiveness, outraged culture, and personal disappointment. Her mouth (as Oscar Wilde said of André Gide’s) was formed to say no. And that’s why Hanks’s Walt, a benevolent engine of yea-saying, is the perfect antagonist for her.
The actor, employing a soothing growl and a super-salesman’s glint, comes off as a real-life Wizard of Oz, a blend of Midwestern dreaminess and practicality that, in show business at least, makes fakery look like a virtue.
The script, by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, is just as witty in its treatment of the Travers-Disney collision as you would hope, but, alas, this duel of cultures and temperaments takes up only two-thirds of the film. The rest is a series of flashbacks to the author’s Australian childhood, which explain the author’s defensiveness all too neatly by recounting the trauma of having an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother. Travers invents Mary Poppins as the perfect nanny who will make everything right. As psychology and as storytelling these scenes are banal and predictable: the child keeps yearning, the mother keeps glowering, the father keeps stumbling. Nothing in them begins to suggest why this particular child grew into the idiosyncratic person that Emma Thompson gives us. Whence came the wit, the pride of authorship, the snarkiness?
Saving Mr. Banks is the sort of movie that makes me grateful for DVDs. A few months from now I’ll be fast-forwarding through those flashbacks to savor, over and over, the brilliance of Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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Published in the January 24, 2014 issue: View Contents
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