Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



26 August


Mother Teresa born, 1910

On this day in 1910, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, Albania (now in the Republic of Macedonia). Raised a Catholic, from an early age she was interested in the work of missionaries and by the age of 12 had decided to devote herself to the religious life. At 18 she joined the Sisters of Loreto, became a missionary and never saw her mother or sister again. After a stint in Loreto Abbey, Ireland, where she learnt English, she went to India, arriving there in 1929, aged 19. Twenty five years later she became headmistress of the school she taught at in Calcutta. Increasing poverty, a famine in 1943 and the outbreak of Muslim/Hindu violence in 1946 led her to believe that it was the alleviation of poverty, not the delivery of education, that was her true calling. In 1948 she moved into the slums of Calcutta, tending the sick, destitute and hungry. A small group of similarly minded women gathered around her and by 1950 she had received permission from the Vatican to start a mission to help “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” As the years went by, Mother Teresa (as she had become known) opened a hospice for the poor to die with dignity, a centre for the treatment of leprosy and a home for lost and abandoned children. Her Missionaries of Charity started to spread through India in the 1950s and internationally in the 1960s. Mother Teresa became internationally famous, travelling to war-torn Beirut in 1982 to rescue trapped children, to Chernobyl to visit radiation victims, to Ethiopia during the 1984 famine, to Armenia after the 1988 earthquake. After suffering a heart attack in 1983, contracting pneumonia in 1989, breaking her collar bone and picking up malaria in 1996, she died in 1997 of heart disease.




Philomena (2013, dir: Stephen Frears)

Philomena tells the story of two very different people. It’s a true story too. On the one hand we have a former BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who became a spin doctor for the Labour government before being bum-rushed out of that position (essentially by fellow journalists in one of the UK media’s regular moments of breathtaking hypocrisy). On the other is a retired Irish woman whose son, born out of wedlock, was taken off her by nuns when she was a slip of a girl. Sixsmith’s book on which this film is based tells the story of how the cynical hack first took on Philomena’s story, reluctantly (“human interest story is a euphemism for weak-minded human interest story,” says Martin to Philomena’s daughter, who he’s met at a party). Then it goes into the detail of the uneasy confessor/penitent relationship of biographer and subject, before finally describing their journey together to the US to find the by-now middle aged man. It’s a real mismatched buddies road movie of a story and would remain as generic as that sounds if it weren’t for the fact that Sixsmith wrote a poignant, self-deprecating book, and it’s been so well adapted to a screenplay by Steve Coogan, who also plays Martin. And given Coogan’s well publicised battles with the British press, having him play one of its representatives would seem to guarantee an interesting portrait at the least. In fact Coogan plays Sixsmith as a nobber, the sort of guy who’s full of petty triumphs and little moments of self-aggrandisement. Opposite him is Judi Dench as Philomena, the dithery but inwardly independent Irish woman who’s familiar to anyone who has an Irish mother. So when Martin hires a car for them to do their preliminary scouting excursions, he gets a BMW, and is proud of its swankiness; to this party she brings some custard creams and a packet of Tunes cough sweets for the journey. When they check into a nice hotel, he’s all blasé; she’s phoning him from her room to ask “Martin, do you have a little chocolate on your pillow.” The film could survive perfectly well on the funny double act that these two do – and doesn’t it say so much about Dench that she can be 007’s boss one moment, and is wringing a laugh out of simple lines like “it’s fruit bread, Martin” the next?
“I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, Martin…” she says later, as the film actually gets down to business and Philomena reveals the naiveté that led her to become pregnant as a young teenager, and then led her to accept the idea that her child should be taken from her. After a “fucking Catholics” by Martin, we’re off into darker territory and the destination of this film’s journey – the son, where he is now, the possible reunion, the explanations, tears and so on. I’m not going to reveal what actually happens, though plenty of reviews will, for reasons which are actually fairly understandable. Because though there is an emotional pay off at the end of the road this duo travel, first in Ireland and then in the USA, it’s the journey not the destination that is the joy of the film. Chalk and cheese (he wants to go to the Lincoln Memorial; she’d rather stay in the hotel and watch Big Momma’s House), with the obligatory “lessons learned on both sides” – but done properly.
Dench’s Irish accent drifts a touch, but it is an otherwise exquisite portrait of a resolutely fair, honest and optimistic woman, a perfect counter-balance to Coogan’s, his usual finger of Alan Partridge entirely appropriate here. I’d be happier without the pantomime evil nun Sister Hildegarde right at the end, but she does at least make the point that feelings run high on this issue, and that the nuns had a cogent worldview too, one in which “carnal incontinence” was something to be battled against. As for Stephen Frears’s direction, it’s a master class in old Hollywood storytelling – of Howard Hawks economy and lightness of touch. Invisible to the eye, all the hard work concealed.



Why Watch?


  • A great Steve Coogan script
  • A great Judi Dench performance
  • Manages to be funny and yet serious
  • Artful direction by Stephen Frears


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Philomena – Watch it now at Amazon





24 March 2014-03-24

Marine Vacth in Jeune et Jolie

Out in the UK this week

Jeune et Jolie (Lionsgate, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Being hot is like a weapon. That’s what director/writer François Ozon’s drama about a French schoolgirl’s double life as a hooker seems to be saying. Ozon casts beautiful Marine Vacth as Isabelle, his teenage temptress, in a story that sees Isabelle offering her young bedflesh for cash to older gents, some of whom are nice, while others are only too keen to abuse their power. Meanwhile, at home, the girl’s beauty goes unremarked upon, until exactly what she’s been doing with it becomes apparent to mum, stepdad and their various friends, who react as if someone shouted “fire”. Ozon pits this carnal power against something potentially as strong, the ideal of romantic love – Isabelle falls in love. And then he metaphorically stands back to let them fight it out. How fitting that for the film’s coda Charlotte Rampling, once one of the most desired women on earth, turns up to administer a cool lesson in the dynamics of sexuality and time. Jeune et Jolie does not say much, especially for an Ozon film, but it does say it eloquently. And in the form of Vacth it also says it beautifully.

Jeune et Jolie – at Amazon

Fire in the Blood (Network, cert E, DVD)

An angry documentary that falters at the start thanks to a murky timeline. But once it gets going it tells a remarkable and disquieting story about drugs companies and their power. The focus is on the Aids crisis in Africa and how Big Pharma tried to stop selling generic drugs to the legions of people dying there. Largely, it seems, because they are black. Dylan Mohan Gray’s film really takes flight when he starts wheeling out the facts. The next time a drugs company tells you it needs to charge big money for pills because that’s how it funds R&D, remember that in fact most spend only about 1.3% of profit on research. And that 84% of worldwide drugs research is funded by governments and other public sources, not drugs companies, or so the film says. Fire in the Blood’s passion finds a heroic human focus in the figure of Yusuf Hamied, the Indian generic drugs manufacturer who broke the logjam by making Aids drugs from scratch, buying in the raw ingredients on the open market. He then sold the cocktails at somewhere around cost to African governments who had declared Aids a national emergency – a stroke learned from the US during its mini anthrax crisis – which allowed them to suspend patent agreements with the drugs companies. This lowered the price per treatment per person per year from $15,000 to $350. In a sinister coda we learn that the companies have since moved the goalposts. Drugs patent agreements no longer come under the aegis of national government legislation, because Big Pharma lobbied hard to have them included in the global World Trade Agreement talks. So next time there’s a similar crisis the Hamieds of the future won’t be able to act.

Fire in the Blood – at Amazon

Philomena (Pathe, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Steve Coogan finally comes good as an actor in this mismatched-buddies road-trip drama about a cynical journalist escorting a sweet elderly Irish woman in her search for the son she gave up years before, at the prompting of evil nuns (is there any other sort these days?). But then he is in the company of Judi Dench, a generous performer, and he’s being directed by Stephen Frears, who has a charmed light touch. Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, the real-life journalist, and writer of the book on which the film is based, who was forced to abandon his career as a political spin doctor and go back to being a jobbing journo. It’s to Sixsmith’s credit that he paints himself as a bit of a twat, a nobby member of the London mediarati whose last wish would be to accompany an ageing simple soul on a dreaded “human interest story” in search of her son. It’s this dynamic – he really is a cock-chafer; she takes a packet of Tunes and some custard creams on a car trip – that is the beating heart of the film. Some of the dialogue is twinklingly funny – “Martin, do you have a chocolate on your pillow,” Philomena asks excitedly after they check into a mid-range hotel. And though Dench’s Irish accent wanders here and there, her comic delivery – “I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, Martin,” – is never in doubt. As for the plot – horrible nuns, searching high and low, trip to America, where they discover the long-lost son is… well, that’s spoiler territory. I watched it with my Irish Catholic mum, who ventured the opinion that nuns aren’t as bad as they’re being painted in films at the moment. Philomena, the film and the woman, seems to agree.

Philomena – at Amazon

The Missing Picture (New Wave, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

Is The Missing Picture a documentary? I’m not sure. It’s directed by Rithy Panh, a Cambodian who uses his camera to tell his own story, of growing up in Cambodia just as the Khmer Rouge arrived in the 1970s. Whether it’s a documentary or not, it’s a remarkable film that mines Panh’s awful past to tell the story of what happened – the starvation, the forced labour, the executions – with Panh using his own homemade clay figures to fill in the gaps where archive footage cannot or will not go. When I say homemade figures I mean lots of them, hundreds, possibly thousands. It looks like some sort of stunt at first, but Panh has lavished such care and attention on them – there’s his brother in a Hawaiian shirt, an entire village assembly, a mock-up of a movie studio, people working in the fields, at the market, everyday scenes from before and during the “occupation” by the obsessively Marxist Pol Pot, aka Brother Number 1, and his mad gang. It’s a sorrowful film, not an angry one, with a quiet considered commentary that only emphasises the grimness that was visited upon this country of gentle souls.

The Missing Picture – at Amazon

Saving Mr Banks (Disney, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Saving Mr Banks tells a great story not very well. Set in the early 1960s it picks us up at the point where Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has finally persuaded PL Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him turn her book, Mary Poppins, into a film. He’s been trying for 20 years. She is broke and so hs finally agreed, though she demands, and gets, script approval, a power she proceeds to wield with a dictator’s sense of fair play. This aspect of the film – Disney’s irresistible force against Travers’s immovable object – is intensely satisfying, Hanks almost brimming over with sly folksy bonhomie while Thompson counters with a frosty asperity that makes her the anti-Poppins – sour, self-centred, snobbish, child-hating. Who’s going to win? We know it was Walt, of course. But how? Why? Because, the film tells us, Disney tapped into Travers’s own insecurities brought about by her own experience with her father. And in flashbacks that pepper the film and soon outstay their welcome, we’re introduced to young PL, in Australia, where her useless father (Colin Farrell) is to turn a good thing bad with his drinking and his incessant wild fantasising.

Saving Mr Banks – at Amazon

Diana (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel is best known for his film Downfall, about Hitler’s last days in Berlin. This film about Princess Diana in the months after her divorce from Prince Charles is a drama about another famous person in a bunker. And as with Hitler so with Diana, Hirschbiegel taking some pains to present the human face behind the myth – Di giving the staff the night off, making herself beans on toast and, most crucially, pursuing the handsome doctor she’s accidentally bumped into at a nearby hospital and smuggling him back into Kensington Palace. This romance, between Diana and Dr Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews) is the peg on which this portrait is hung. Presumably because Khan doesn’t have the legal clout to remove himself from the film’s gaze – notably there’s not a single royal personage or person of real public profile in this film. The dead princess’s legions of fans might like it; I doubt anyone else will really be interested in a jump through familiar headlines, the princess being portrayed as a giddy young woman with Mother Theresa tendencies. Naomi Watts tries – I don’t think I’ve ever seen her work harder – but she gets no further than the public perception of the woman. Same with the film.

Diana – at Amazon


Don Jon (Warner, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

I’ve heard Don Jon praised by people I respect (Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve, for one). But though I admired its intention and have a lot of time for its stars, it left a bad taste in the mouth. But big props to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, its star, writer, director, for deciding to tackle the issue of porn-induced emotional anhedonia, JGL’s character being the Don Jon of the title, a playa and porn addict whose hit rate with the ladies takes a deep dive after he falls for Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a totally hot ice queen he meets at the club. Leaving to one side the fact that this is the most ungenerous piece of writing for a female character I’ve seen in years – Johansson’s Barbara is a cockteasing nasty, smallminded bitch – Don Jon’s real problem is that it keeps telling us the same thing again and again. We see DJ affected by some new development (usually something Barbara did), his voiceover tells us about it, his friends greek-chorus it, his parents turn it into an issue, then the look on his sister’s face amplifies it further, until finally we hear about it all over again as DJ kneels in the confessional. Ah yes, the confessional. I could also entirely do without the New Jersey guys-in-their-singlets business and all the sub-Scorsese/Abel Ferrara Catholic bullshit. There is good stuff in here – when is JGL ever bad? – he’s tackling the right subject and he’s unafraid to present guys as feral when it comes to women. But so much doesn’t work. I’m not even going to mention what goes down once Julianne Moore turns up.

Don Jon – at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2014