Director Stephen Frears has directed all sorts of movies in his multi-faceted career, but he’s often seen at his best in personal docudramas about real life people. Prick Up Your Ears delved into playwright Joe Orton’s final years, The Queen shone the spotlight on Elizabeth II’s harrowing few months dealing with the death of Princess Diana, and now we have Philomena, a memorable, moving portrait of discovery for two very different individuals. It’s a compact film filled with delightful character interplay and some truly emotional epiphanies that leaves a thorough sense of satisfaction with the viewer once it concludes. One would hardly wish a single frame of the film to be any different.
Distributed By: Anchor Bay
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HDMA, French 5.1 DD
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Run Time: 1 Hr. 38 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray, UltraVioletkeep case
Disc Type: BD25 (single layer)
Release Date: 04/15/2014
Forced to sign away her parental rights as an unwed teenaged mother living in a convent school in Ireland, Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark as a teen, Judi Dench as an adult) watches in horror as her young son Anthony is adopted by a wealthy couple right out from under her. Fifty years later, her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) contacts former journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to see if he wouldn’t go with his mother on a search for her son. Though human interest stories are hardly his bag (he’s actually interested in writing a book on Russian history), Martin is intrigued by the sweet, simple, devout woman eager to learn what she can about her long missing son, so he gets a publisher to front the bill for a thorough search, a journey that takes the pair to Washington, D.C. and back to Ireland all the while the duo learn much about themselves and each other as they learn the truth of the boy’s life and death.
The Production Rating: 4.5/5
One of the most fascinating aspects of the screenplay by co-star Steve Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope is that after we learn of the son’s death in the movie, there’s almost an hour of film left in which the pair go on a sort of treasure hunt to discover everything they can about the life he led from 1952-1996. The booty they find including secrets long buried and hopefully forgotten are both eye-opening and enraging, and by having such two diametrically opposite personality types as our two protagonists, we get the entire gamut of emotions possible from each new revelation. Philomena may be simple, but she’s hardly lived a sheltered life (she’d been a nurse for thirty years) and takes matters of coarse language and sex in her stride (in fact, one of the film’s most wonderful moments is when Philomena describes the joyous sexual encounter in which her son was conceived, something about which she has not one iota of regret). Of course, the Catholic Church comes out as the villain once again with a particularly nasty nun Sister Hildegarde (played at different stages of her life by Kate Fleetwood and Barbara Jefford) who refuses to offer pain killers during the breach birth of Philomena’s child citing the pain as just punishment for engaging in sinful activity and elaborate precautions taken to obfuscate the truth from the rest of the world. Director Stephen Frears manages wonderfully smooth segues between real life and Philomena’s memories and amalgamates the real world photography with crude home movies and later more modern appearing videotaped memories in fashioning a sentimental and emotionally fulfilling picture of her son (played as an adult by Sean Mahon).
Though she plays the title role, Judi Dench and Steve Coogan truly do share equal status during the film as both of their characters endure the ups and downs of their exploratory journey together. Seeing him especially grow fiercely protective of Philomena after basically writing her off as a simpleton earlier in the story constitutes the film’s greatest path toward discovery, and both actors play off one another to brilliant perfection. They make a terrific team. Sophie Kennedy Clark is most effective as the young Philomena ferocious in her love for her child despite the sisters’ constant efforts to distance the unwed mothers from their offspring. Mare Winningham shows up for one scene as the boy’s adopted sister, and Peter Hermann and Michelle Fairley each have some nice moments as the important man and woman in the life of Philomena’s son.
The film has been framed for Blu-ray at 1.78:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Sharpness is very striking throughout the movie, and there are plenty of details to be seen particularly in close-ups. Color is true with realistic flesh tones. Contrast is generally consistent throughout though there are occasional moments where it seems a bit lighter than necessary. Black levels are not at the deepest end of the spectrum, but they’re certainly more than adequate. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.
Video Rating: 4.5/5 3D Rating: NA
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix uses the surround soundstage most effectively for Alexandre Desplat’s lilting, involving background score. Otherwise, ambience isn’t quite all it could be. Dialogue has been masterfully recorded and has been placed in the center channel.
Audio Rating: 4/5
Audio Commentary: co-writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope have a more than amiable conversation as the film runs with memories from production and from their writing process constantly being discussed. Fans of the film will definitely want to give this a listen.
Special Features Rating: 3/5
A Conversation with Judi Dench (8:54, SD): the actress chats about her theatrical, television, and movie careers and talks a bit about her character in the film.
The Real Philomena Lee (2:47, SD): basically an EPK vignette for the movie, there are brief sound bites from Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, and Sophie Kennedy Clark about their characters, director Stephen Frears about the production, and the real Philomena Lee about her story.
Q&A With Steve Coogan (24:17, SD): the star-writer-producer of the film is interviewed by Timothy Blake as a follow-up to a festival showing of the movie.
Promo Trailers (HD): Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
Ultraviolet: code sheet enclosed in the case.
A terrifically engaging and emotionally gratifying docudrama on the search for one woman’s long missing son, Philomena is certainly a journey worth taking. The Blu-ray release offers excellent picture and sound and some rewarding bonus material. Recommended!
Overall Rating: 4/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
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