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Posts Tagged ‘Judi Dench’

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Philomena (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) by the grave of her son

Dear friends and readers,

To help myself get through Thanksgiving Day yesterday, I went out to a movie that had gotten rave reviews: Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears, written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and based on The Lost Child of Philomena, a book by the real journalist, named Martin Sixsmith, who did help an elderly Irish woman locate the adult her baby born 50 years earlier and taken from her had become:

50 years ago Philomena became pregnant outside marriage (in the film after one night’s love-making at a fair); she was thrown out by her parents, and taken in by a Catholic Charity who proceeded to treat her in the harshest way: she had a breech-birth with no painkillers; she was made to work long hard hours in a laundry for 4 years for little pay in the meagerest circumstances and, along with the other unwed mothers, permitted to see her child one hour a day. Her male child and another female were sold to an American couple for $1000 and she coerced into signing her rights away. Years later the nuns lied to her when she came back to locate him: they said the records were all burnt but one, the paper where she signed her rights to her child away. In the film the journalist is immediately suspicious: how could this one document survive and all others be destroyed? We discover they lied to the boy become an older man when he returned to find her; when he died of AIDS, he wanted to be buried at the charity and his grave is now there and in the film untended (like those who died at the time of the mean inhumane treatment)

The film resembles Rabbit-Proof Fence, which I saw some years ago (2001) where the aborigine children of three women are snatched by middle class white Australians to be brought up in a European middle class culture (but in a harsh orphanage-like environment); in that film the girls make their way back to their mothers through terrible deserts. In both films, the behavior is justified by those who did it: in Philomena, the nuns say she was a gross sinner who deserved the worst punishment; in Rabbit-Proof Fence, Australian authorities say the white culture will provide a much better life for the children when (and if) they grow up. Philomena acknowledges that the boy, Michael in the film, grew up in a middle class home in circumstances which enabled him to become a successful lawyer and work for top Republican people; he was gay and lived with a male friend in reasonable comfort until he contracted AIDS which killed him well before he and others could get the Republicans in charge to fund any program to help find a cure or help for this fatal disease condition.

So the premise is not sentimental. The story exposes a profound injustice done to a powerless woman.

This review (by Jay Stone, Post-Media News) praising the film tells the basic opening premise: a fired or failed and humiliated politician becomes a journalist who does human interest stories and finds himself hired to help an elderly woman locate her son. Also its moral purport: “an odd-couple drama with a dark heart and a post-modern sensibility, an expose of the shockingly sadistic treatment of unwed mothers in the 1950s, and a worldly dismissal of everything that brought it about.” Martin and Philomena are an odd couple: utterly disparate in cultural understanding and age (she reads and understands improbable sentimental romances literally), his sceptical ironic perspective and her naive defenses of those who damaged her profoundly make for oddly dark humor.

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Researching today is looking into the computer

I had not expected this political paradigm: unlike Rabbit-Proof Fence the way the film is advertised, does not bring out its critique of the anti-sex and anti-women attitude in Catholicism, its hypocritical practices: not only do the nuns in charge lie, they make it impossible for Philomena to talk to the aging still ferociously hateful nuns who did the deed. I also didn’t expect the plot-design: such stories usually end in the victim finding her child all grown up and happy and successful at the close; or dead, having died terribly and had a terrible life at the close. That’s what the head newswoman keeps saying on the phone she expects Martin to find after his journey to the US with Philomena and she wants him to write it up that way in order to sell newspapers and is paying the funds needed for travel and research in the expectation of such a story. He is to find such a story write it this way.

Instead about 1/3rd into the film, maybe less, through the computer’s access to information and Martin’s experience telling him where to look when they get to the US, we and then Philomena discover what happened to her son and that he died some 20 years ago. Armed with his name, the names of the people who bought him and became his parents, and the names of those he worked with in the Republican administrations (and photos too), they slowly discover what was her son’s nature and how he lived (middle class life growing up, good school but the parents were hard on him and the girl who became his sister), his homosexuality (which funnily but believably Philomena suspects quickly upon seeing his photos). They and we visit his sister; then an ex-colleague now at the Folger Library; and after much struggle, they force their way into the house of his partner (who was in effect his spouse) and he shows them one of these montages of photos and films that funeral homes nowadays make up and put on DVDs as wellas websites for customers.

It was when the film became to play this montage I broke down. I began to sob uncontrollably. It was so like the montage the Everly-Wheatley Funeral Home made of my husband Jim; opening with the same sentence telling the day the person was born; closing with a similar sentence recording the day he died, and more or less taking the viewer through the stages of the person’s life as he looked and changed. The relatives of this fictionalized montage and I and my daughter naturally chose the best pictures and the expertise of the funeral director puts them into coherent order. Soft music and interwoven photos of natural phenomenon (grass, birds, sky, flowers) do the rest. So the montage I paid for is common I learned.

After that the emotional moments in the rest of the film drew tears from my eyes. Judi Dench rightly receives high praise for her performance. I’ve seen her several times before perform this high-wire act (Cranford Chronicles, with Maggie Smith, Ladies in Lavender) where she conveys a depth of tender emotion just held in check so that a sentimental story is told prosaically; a underlying sternness of aspect in Dench’s face (Helen Mirren pulls off this kind of thing too) is part of what’s responsible for the effectiveness of Dench’s presence; as Philomena she conveys some self-irony (like Maggie Smith does in her enactments of this kind of role, say Bed Among Lentils) — even in a woman given to retelling with utter earnestness the silliest romance stories.

Dench is helped by being partnered with an acerbic comic actor: Steve Coogan played in a burlesque adaptation of Tristam Shandy (A Cock and Bull Story); as Ann Hornaday says he utters “mordant asides” “often having nothing to do with theology, or religion.” Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls them a divine couple.

One must not forget the contribution of Stephen Frears who while not seen has made many film masterpieces as disparate as My Beautiful Laundrette, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Grifters, Mary Reilly, recently Cheri, Tamara Drewe. And scriptwriters Coogan and Jeff Pope.

It was Thanksgiving Day which is still kept by many Americans so few people were in the theater. Most were presumably at home with families or friends eating a turkey or other roast-bird meal. Or quietly allowing others to think they are. Some put photos on the Net to show they are participating, a propensity made fun of this week in the New Yorker (see The Ordeal of Holidays).

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A known secret is that Christmas Day is now passed by many by going to a movie — you do see people in groups — and the meal is sometimes eaten out in a restaurant (Asian ones have been open on Christmas Day for a long time, permitting the joke I passed the day in the Jewish way, movie and Chinese food out). Although Thanksgiving itself has not been commercialized beyond the buying of a bird and trimmings, those who don’t get to do this are made to feel bad so public media shows include statements by announcers expressing compassion for the presumed unhappiness of those who don’t get to experience such get-togethers for whatever reason. On Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifills’ PBS Reports, I saw the story of a poor black woman who since food stamp allowances were cut gets $63 worth of groceries per month for herself and her grandchild. This is not enough to buy a Thanksgiving feast. Well some charitable organization in Virginia was giving away grocery bags full of roast birds, vegetables, treats (cakes? pies?) and drinks; as a viewer I listened to her description of her life (she is the type who works at Wall-Mart’s) and how grateful (!) she was to the charity. Right.

The demanded behavior on Thanksgiving or Turkey day is an expression of thanks (read W. S. Merwin’s poem) — in origin it’s a religious ritual feast.

I’m not immune to this. Today was my birthday and I was relieved and rejoiced when my young friend, Thao, and her partner, Jeff, were able to make it to DC all the way from Toronto, Canada, where they live. It is common for people in the US to travel long distances to get back to some relative or friend for dinner. Thao and Jeff were here also to shop for an an engagement ring and see other friends (she attended GMU for her undergraduate degree). I am no cook, but together for the day after Turkey Day, Izzy and I managed to roast a chicken, heat up frozen pre-prepared zuchini (awful), cook spaghetti and a yummy pasta and cheese sauce I bought from Whole Foods; fresh bread, ginger ale for all but me (who drank cheap Riesling) and Port Salud cheese rounded out our feast. We talked, took photos.

If you should see the remarkably candid, intelligent and moving bio-pic Joan Rivers made about her life (A Piece of Work), you will find that on Thanksgiving day she makes a feast in her apartment and to fill the table’s chairs and do a good deed, she invites street-people known to her up to apartment each year to eat with her. A friend of mine whose grown children are divorced, live far away, know unemployment and other obstacles preventing all from getting-together, this friend invites three woman who have no families to dine with her and her husband and those of her children and grandchildren who do make it.

I have a double excuse for this weakness this year: my beloved husband died of cancer this year; the rightly dreaded disease allowed to continue to spread (President Obama just signed some bill easing the way for those who want to frack for huge profits), this disease killed him horribly inside 6 months.

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But I digress. I’ve forgotten Philomena. Don’t miss it. It’s funny. The background is modern day USA as experienced by the middle class in DC and modern day Ireland. We are able to remain calm and not get too indignant because the Catholic nunnery as presented in the film is an anomaly, a broken-down place no one in their right mind goes near. None of the sternness of the ending of Rabbit-Proof Fence: in Rabbit-Proof Fence, the perpetrator played by Kenneth Branagh remains as unreformed as the nuns in Philomena do, but the aborigine children who escaped back to the aborigine people are presented in their present poverty-stricken existences — probably dependent on charities the way the black grandmother seen on the Woodruff-Ifill show was yesterday. The modern-day Philomena lives with a kind patient professional daughter wisely underplayed by Anna Maxwell Martin (another wonderful actress who I hope decades from now is working on in the way Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith all have). Mother and Daughter live in a decent house, do lunch in pubs.

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Ellen

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Evelyn (Judy Dench), our resident blogger (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)


When first seen: Maggie Smith as Mrs Donnelly making a scene in a UK hospital room: “There’s an Indian in there!” she says

Dear friends and readers,

For a few minutes afterward, this movie helps make you be glad to be alive, with time yet to retrieve, to compensate, to use as best you can. Now I’ve written the sort of review where you should’ve seen the film first. So let me say to anyone coming over here, go see the film first, and then come back here, and read. To those who have no intention of going to see the film, read on.

It’s more touching than funny; the trailer (as ever) misrepresents it as vulgar exploitation of remarkable older British actors placed in India with lots of (probably) stale jokes. Well, certainly it does have a roster of superb older actors, all of them getting on and photographed to show that. They do go to India and the photography is spectactularly good, with a successful filming of places to give us a strong feel of their presence and what it might feel to be in such a place, this from the time it opens in modern UK (London mostly) to the airplane trip, the busses, India and its environs.


India — early landscape seen from afar, before landing

The theater we go to was unusually crowded — and perhaps yours will be too. The movie was playing on two screens (very unusual) and the auditorium we were in was jam-packed. Indeed we were not able to go to the show we came for (4:45); but instead went to the 5:05. There were lines to get in – another rarity for this small semi-art theater. However, it didn’t take much to see the lines were made up of mostly older people. There were people younger than 40 I’d say but they did not predominate and the average age might have been close to mine. Lots of older men — which is not common in costume dramas or movies of this type (maybe at all).

The movie was about retired people. Seven of them, to which an eighth is added who was born and grew up in India. As the movie begins, we are introduced to each in turn, complete with an intertitle typed (computer style print-out) first name right before our very eyes:


Inside of a UK building (we do also see some gardens from high windows)


The contrast in India

Judi Dench is first to be seen. She is phoning someone who makes her wait and then refuses to answer her questions about the computer program whose terms are puzzling her. You see she’s not the registered owner. Can the voice speak to the owner? Evelyn says he’s dead (her husband). Evelyn or Mrs Greenslade goes from this opening of not coping with a computer to being quite the daily blogger. Dench’s over-voice provides the sense of time passing (Day 9, Day 51) and she functions as a kind of reflective narrator. The lines are very good. Filled with thoughtful reflections on life as lived for this group of people but also anyone. I would have liked to take some of it down. I hope I don’t have to tell my reader that Dench reads superbly well (well they all do). You don’t really have to be 60 or 70 to bond with this film.


Mrs Greenslade and Mrs Hardcastle look about them

At least four of our group are struggling to survive on what has turned out to be too small a pension (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton presented as married Ainsleys, Douglas and Jean), or life-savings gone (same couple, Celia Imrie as Mrs Hardcastle and she without a partner), or unexpected indebtedness when a husband dies (Judi Dench’s character). One or two or just had enough of their repetitive lives (Tom Wilkinson, a successful court judge, Mr Graham Dashwood), or have been left out in the cold with no one to be with and nothing to do (Jack Pickup as Norman and Maggie Smith as Muriel Donnelly).

Maggie Smith’s story unfolds from that of a woman on a hospital bed with wheels, waiting in a corridor to be seen to because she has refused the services of a black doctor. She is working class (a strong working class accent is used) and racially a bigot, xenophobic it seems. We gradually learn that she spent her life as a high servant in a great house, housekeeper cum-nanny (shades of Downton Abbey except that most houses did not have extensive staffs) who when she grew too old was her pensioned off, deemed useless (superfluous) once she trained the replacement. Now she just doesn’t know what to do. She has nothing to do, nowhere to go (and no one to be with). Some of Smith’s expressions as she retold her story reminded me of Smith in her magnificent part of Alice in Bennet’s Bed among Lentils.

She needs a new hip and the quickest way to get it is go to India for the operation. She learns that people abandon her wheelchair if she is unpleasant; have little use for her demands. She must live in this multicultural multi-colored world. Arriving, an untouchable young girl provides her with food and company, invites her to see her family because she, Mrs Donnelly, notices here. Of course she gradually softens, begins to shed her bigotries.


Later on in India

She is relieved to see that her approbation is wanted, then worries she has hurt someone’s feelings, then grateful these Indian people want her, need her, and by film’s end (after her hip replacement and her first short walk) is womaning the clerk’s desk at the Hotel, managing it the way she once did her employers’. It is she who goes over the hotel’s books and devises a scheme for keeping it afloat.


Saving the day

By the end of the movie we feel she saves the day for the young Indian couple who need the hotel. (I told you to see the film first.) No need for her to worry what to do next anymore.

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To go through the story line as a whole chronologically:


Negotiating for seat

On the trip out. We see them see the ads, and then begin to form their group as they get on the same plane. That’s probably improbable: there are many improbabilities, including the idea such people could thrive in this half-rundown hotel taken over by a third son, Sonny Kapur (Dev Patel) who is trying to break away from a family group, and especially a dictatorial mother, Mrs Kapoor (Lillete Dubey) who seeks to stifle him because he is not the eldest.


The group forms — before our very eyes — on their way

Once arrived, we see them all coping, sometimes well (Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson start out strong), or not well, as individuals (Celie Imrie joins a super-expensive mostly white club) and as a group.


Jean Ainsley indignant at the difference between the hotel as pictured in the brochure and its reality

Mrs Hardcastle takes over Sonny’s room because it has a door. Norman does exercises in his home-made shower, sets up his transistor radio high on the roof on a clothesline.

We have experienced the long journey there and now watch each person setting him or herself up and then their gradual adjustment individually and as a group. Until near the end much of it (if you accept the story’s faery frame) make sense and are touching. It’s people getting used to a different life — and their age matters, their looks. At the same time a story of a young Indian couple with a tough mother or prospective mother-in-law and equally tough older brother for the young heroine ensues. Real emotions are brought out.


The courtyard with Norman on the lounger and Mr Dashwood come to sit in the swing

As Izzy says, Penelope Wilton as Jean has the most thankless role. She is the middle-aged woman who is tired of her long-sufferingly kind but mechanically incompetent indeed self-deprecating husband, Douglas. She endlessly complains. He agrees with her the “sodding” flat they would have been reduced to in the UK won’t do, but does not agree that the way to endure life in India is to sit in a chair not going out, reading a book and hoping for English grilled food for dinner.


One of the pleasanter shots of Jean with Douglas on the other side and Mrs Hardcastle inbetween

She makes the mistake of semi-falling for Mr Dashwood who turns out to be gay. We are in fairy tale land, and as Bill Nighy’s culminating (reproachful) speech to Penelope Wilton makes explicit, the film tells us, make the best of things, do your best and don’t worry about it, and, well why not be cheered, why not show the better or happier face for yourself and others too. The movie is self-reflexive.


Mr Dashwood talking quietly, the actor dressed as the character explains he’s gay (not in the film)

The key note moving story is that of Mr Dashwood, Graham (Tom Wilkinson), the gay seeking the young gay Indian young man he left behind 40 years ago. He seems at first to be just wandering about. Taking the place in. He plays cricket with some street boys. But he is doing something, researching day after day in a Records Office. Graham finally finds the name of the young man whom he last saw disgraced and has imagined lived a hard ashamed life. He goes to meet him, Evelyn and Douglas backing him there.

In fact his friend has been happier than Graham, with a wife who understood him (as Jean has not, at least not respected or appreciated Douglas). They hug so intensely and Douglas says the morning after spent that night talking. At this moment of fulfillment and peace Mr Dashwood dies. Izzy said that when someone is to die, it is often the homosexual person. I had not noticed and she may be right. Wilkinson plays the part with such dignity, we grieve at his loss. His ashes are scattered in the Ganges by his friend. But it is true we are deprived of a happy homosexual couple at the film’s end. Only heterosexuality is celebrated in the last moments.


The Judith (Lucy Robinson), the eighth lonely soul is Norman’s new partner, found in the same expensive club Mrs Hardcastle joined: Mrs Hardcastle is never explained; could be a quiet lesbian but we are not told this

After Mr Dashwood’s death we have the denouement. A slowly building story is that of Sonny and Sunaina (Tena Desae). Sunaina works for her brother as a telephone answering highyl-educated person. The brother does not respect Kapoor but his sister loves him. She agrees to go to bed with him, but when she comes to the hotel late at night, strips and moves to what she thinks is his bed, she finds herself in bed with Mrs Hardcastle. Mrs Hardcastle refused the room assigned her because it lacked a door. Kapoor’s mother comes in and thinks Sunaina is a prostitute. Over the arch of the story, with a little help from Mrs Donnelly reading the records, Kapoor wins his right to renovate and keep the hotel up and last scene the pair of them are in their bike driving into the horizon:

I don’t want to give away the final still or moment. Suffice to say that this is such a sheer moment of unexpected joy at the end for another newly formed couple there was a kind of startled stillness in the movie matched by a stillness in the audience. It’s touch and go: the chance to try again for love is almost lost. Let me say just say it’s pulled off because Douglas gets to the plane hanger too late after Jean sends him back to the hotel to go on herself:


Mr Ainsley has his dreams too (an early Austen-like film with him as father is an adaptation of Jodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle) (this is not in the film, but from the feature)

Many wry jokes. It’s an intelligent entertainment. We are told of India’s poverty, the caste system, see a little of it, but the accent is on the color, noise and there’s a sort of fun folk rendition of the sort of song that is typical of Bollywood films. The writer of the originating story or novel is Deborah Moggach, who wrote the screenplay for Wright’s 2005 P&P. The director is John Madden and the brilliant script by Ol Parker.


A kiss


Closing

Ellen

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