Film reviews: Philomena | Thor: The Dark World

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in Philomena. Picture: Contributed
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in Philomena. Picture: Contributed
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SIOBHAN Synnot reviews the latest films to hit the cinemas.

Philomena (12A)

Director: Stephen Frears

Running time: 98 minutes

Rating: * * *

STRANGE but true: the UK’s most bankable film star at the moment is a 78-year-old Quaker. Judi Dench does it all: Bond films, comedies, period drama, cabaret and bar mitzvahs. I do admire her versatility, and she is choosy enough to escape the charge of ubiquity, yet sometimes the films leave her to do an awful lot of heavy lifting.

Take Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears, and written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Coogan also co-stars as Martin Sixsmith, a former reporter who is smarting from the humiliation of a recent unfair sacking from his high-profile government post at the start of the film. He resists the idea of returning to using his old journalism skills, until he is almost forced to take up the human interest story of Philomena Lee (Dench), an Irish woman who fell pregnant and was sent to a convent in disgrace. After giving birth to her son, the nuns sold him to a wealthy overseas couple then claimed to have lost the adoption details in a fire. Reluctantly at first, Sixsmith agrees to help her track him down then write up the story.

The film is loosely based on Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee, although Coogan says the film is more directly inspired by conversations he had with Sixsmith and the real Philomena. On the face of it, this suggests that Martin Sixsmith is awfully like Steve Coogan, or at least he seems to be a big fan of Coogan’s patented pained wince. Still, the screen Sixsmith is a rather more rounded creation than Philomena – a character to root for but who only seems to exist in two dimensions. Played in flashback by Sophie Kennedy Clark, she starts off as a warmhearted naïve, who grows up to be broadminded, openhearted and given to oversharing. “I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, Martin,” says Dame Judi, ushering in another wince from Coogan.

The film gets a lot of mileage from the gap between Sixsmith’s Oxbridge cynicism and Philomena’s garrulous good nature, and I liked the running gag where Sixsmith endures Philomena’s love of romantic novels, a detail that also neatly underscores her quest for a happy ending. Yet, like Martin, I’m astonished that anyone would willingly forgo a night out in Washington DC in favour of watching Big Momma’s House on cable TV. “It looks hilarious,” asserts Philomena, incorrectly.

Philomena may have the best of intentions, but it never shakes off the sense that this is The Magdalene Sisters for the Edna O’Brien crowd, or a Britpic directed at American moviegoers who like their well-acted British fare served with a small garnish of frisson. Dench and Coogan are good together, but the themes are trowelled on, so that occasionally there’s the sense that you have wandered into a sermon about anger and forgiveness with the opportunity for a bit of grandstanding. Coogan and Dench are on religious ground at the time, but the congregation is really us.

I didn’t hate Philomena, but it’s a little complacent about its power to touch a middlebrow audience. I’d certainly like to see Coogan write something else, but although his heart is in the right place, his approach at this stage is sometimes boilerplate, soldered on without finesse.

On general release from Friday

Thunderer’s clangers outweigh the guilty pleasures

Thor: The Dark World (12A)

Rating: * * *

I MUST admit, I look forward to Thor films the way my sister looks forward to those Michael Fassbender movies where his character has lots of sex, yet can’t help being miserable about it. The pleasures of both genres are mostly guilty.

In Thor movies, Chris Hemsworth gets bulked up like a gold brick, with Anthony Hopkins as his dad Odin, bellowing lines like a man with a new set of lungs. Best of all, there is Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s double-crossing brother Loki, who marries Shakespearian villainy to knowing campiness, and somehow makes that relationship work. Fleeting but fun scenes include Idris Elba as an all-seeing guardian of Asgard, who has allowed himself to be goldplated so that he looks like a cross between a Minotaur and an academy award.

These are the things I love in Thor films, and thank goodness they are all present in Thor: The Dark World. What is missing, unfortunately, is the original’s sense of ebullient entertainment. In the first adventure, Asgard was under attack from Frost Giants. Now the homestead has to defend itself from Dark Elves. Different height, same game plan; been there, done that, got the hammer. And alas, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the beauteously dull astrophysicist, is also back as the romantic drag factor. The first thing she does is nag Thor for ignoring her during Avengers Assemble. “Wars were raging, marauders were pillaging,” he tells her. “As excuses go, it’s not terrible,” she concedes. There is sharper romantic repartee in an 80-year-old Leo McCarey film.

On general release from Wednesday


The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology (15)

Rating: * * * *

Sophie Fiennes returns with Slovenian provocateur Slavoj Zizek, who uses classic films including A Clockwork Orange, Jaws and The Sound Of Music to illustrate some eccentric but engaging theories about our culture. It’s much more fascinating and fun than anything Mark Cousins strains for, and the takedown of Titanic is particularly trenchant and marvellous.

Cameo, today and Tuesday; Glasgow Film Theatre, tomorrow until Thursday

Short Term 12 (15)

Rating: * * *

Brie Larson is terrific as a woman in charge of a foster care unit in an earnest character study, nicely nuanced despite a slight tendency to overexplain.

On selected release from Friday

The Wolf Children (PG)

Rating: * * *

Mamoru Hosoda’s anime is about a mixed couple – he’s a werewolf, she isn’t – whose children have to deal with a hostile reaction in their town. The Americanised colloquial translations jar against the eastern setting but it is beautiful to look at.

On selected release

The Forgotten Kingdom (15)

Rating: * * *

A young man (Zenzo Ngqobe) leaves Johannesburg to return to his rural family home of Lesotho to bury his father. The film is slow at times but intriguing as a coming of age travelogue.

Glasgow Film Theatre, today, as part of the Africa In Motion film festival

Cutie And The Boxer

Rating: * * *

Documentary about a married couple of artists, who bicker brutally through most of their screentime. A bold portrait of artistic dysfunction that you can watch once for its fearless honesty, but maybe not twice.

Selected release, including the Belmont, Aberdeen, 5 November.

The Nun (12A)

Rating: * * *

An adaptation of Denis Diderot’s 18th-century novel with Isabelle Huppert as a convent’s mother superior who becomes sexually infatuated with a novice (Pauline Etienne). A glossy treatment arranged in a painterly manner, and fine if you are looking for a bit of masterpiece theatre sizzle.

On selected release

Twitter @SiobhanSynnot