Odd cou­ple on the trail

Philom­ena Anchorman 2: The Le­gend Con­tin­ues

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Strat­ton

son taken from her by the Catholic Church when she bore him out of wed­lock in the 1950s. A tale that could have been mawk­ish is sprightly and af­fect­ing, led by a de­light­ful screen­play and Dench’s won­der­ful per­for­mance, which most re­cently earned a Screen Ac­tors Guild nom­i­na­tion and likely will win her a sev­enth Academy Award nom­i­na­tion.

Frears is self-dep­re­cat­ing, al­most dis­mis­sive, about his own con­tri­bu­tion to the fine film.

‘‘ You’re just try­ing to tell the story as well as pos­si­ble, get the scenes in the right order and get the tone right,’’ he says. ‘‘ The tone of the film is very im­por­tant.’’

In this in­stance, the tone is sub­tle. The pain of an­other tragic episode in Catholi­cism’s so­called ‘‘ pas­toral care’’ doesn’t over­whelm a film that can be con­sumed purely as a road trip and de­tec­tive movie.

Yet, at the same time, the film doesn’t triv­i­alise the ap­palling in­stances of shame in­flicted on young women by the church. The film’s com­edy qui­etly gives way to heartwrench­ing sen­ti­ment.

Don’t ask Frears how he man­aged the tone, though. ‘‘ I don’t know, you either get it right or you get it wrong,’’ he chuffs. ‘‘ I don’t know how you do it. You’re work­ing with bright peo­ple and you try and be as sen­si­ble as you can. There isn’t a for­mula, you just try and do what’s ap­pro­pri­ate.’’

That is a self-dep­re­cat­ing anal­y­sis of his di­rec­tion. ‘‘ Well, I know a lot about it,’’ Frears replies. ‘‘ I know how much I owe the ac­tors; I know how much I owe the crew. I know the bits I do.

‘‘ It’s largely to do with tone and to do with un­der­stand­ing what that world was like. I had to learn all that stuff and I have very, very good peo­ple around me so I can con­cen­trate on spe­cific bits largely to do with the sto­ry­telling.’’

Within the di­rec­tor’s eclec­tic re­sume, Philom­ena feels like a Frears film: adult, witty and thought­ful.

Frears de­murs. He has no idea what a ‘‘ Frears film’’ might be. ‘‘ What you’re talk­ing about is so un­con­scious and in­vis­i­ble to me; I just try to tell the story well,’’ he says.

‘‘ You be­come very ex­pe­ri­enced and the truth is I’ve been do­ing it so long I bloody well ought to be able to do it.’’

While Frears agrees di­rect­ing is a young per­son’s game, his present out­put be­lies the cin­ema con­ven­tion. ‘‘ But at the same time, the films I make, I don’t know how a young per­son could make them be­cause they so de­pend on ex­pe­ri­ence.’’

The team be­hind the film is long on ex­pe­ri­ence. The story came from a BBC for­eign cor­re­spon­dent of two decades’ ex­pe­ri­ence who was be­twixt and be­tween af­ter his move to work with the Blair gov­ern­ment ended in scan­dal.

Six­smith’s time at the Bri­tish pub­lic broad­caster had in­cluded stints in Moscow, Wash­ing­ton, Brus­sels and War­saw dur­ing sem­i­nal mo­ments in­clud­ing the fall of com­mu­nism, the Pol­ish Sol­i­dar­ity up­ris­ing and Bill Clin­ton’s pres­i­dency.

But while work­ing for the Blair gov­ern­ment, he be­came the patsy for a min­is­ter who sug­gested bury­ing some bad news in the chaos on Septem­ber 11, 2001. Later, Six­smith ad­vised the gov­ern­ment it should not do the same, bury­ing news on the day of a royal fu­neral. Nev­er­the­less, he was pushed out as the dis­pens­able un­der­ling, only to be later vin­di­cated and com­pen­sated.

With hind­sight, Six­smith says the scan­dal pushed him in a favourable di­rec­tion that led to writ­ing books and con­sult­ing on doc­u­men­taries and the po­lit­i­cal satire The Thick of It. Yet the film paints Six­smith as, ini­tially, lost. ‘‘ That por­trait by Steve Coogan of some­one so de­spon­dent and at his wit’s end look­ing for a job is ex­ag­ger­ated,’’ Six­smith says. ‘‘ And some of the char­ac­ter traits, that pom­pos­ity, is ex­ag­ger­ated.’’ You would say that. ’’ Pre­cisely,’’ he says, laugh­ing. ‘‘ Steve and Jeff said: ‘ We’re go­ing to make you look like a bit of a prat at the start of the movie so you can be re­deemed by the end of the movie.’ I just nod­ded and said OK.’’

Coogan’s Martin is dis­mis­sive of Philom­ena’s story at first, not­ing with dis­dain — and as a se­ri­ous jour­nal­ist might — ‘‘ I don’t do hu­man in­ter­est sto­ries.’’

Six­smith can’t re­call say­ing that and ac­cepts it helps por­tray Martin as a stuck-up prat.

‘‘ It’s also a clever de­vice by the di­rec­tor or scriptwriter be­cause one could ar­gue the whole movie is a hu­man in­ter­est story and one of the film’s tasks is to stop it be­ing a slightly sen­ti­men­tal, dumbed-down, hu­man in­ter­est story,’’ he says. ‘‘ That kind of sig­nals to the au­di­ence this will be more than your stan­dard Reader’s Di­gest stuff and slightly more com­pli­cated.’’

Frears could see a ‘‘ jolly good film’’ emerg­ing when he was in the cut­ting room. He too ap­pre­ci­ated the dis­parate parts were com­bin­ing into an ef­fec­tive whole.

‘‘ But there’s still a gap be­tween that and the re­cep­tion that takes me by sur­prise,’’ he says.

Di­rect­ing Coogan and Dench was easy, Frears says. ‘‘ You just sit back and watch. [Dench is] as good as any­body in the world; I’ve worked with her be­fore, of course, and she’s fan­tas­tic.’’ And Coogan is ‘‘ very, very in­ven­tive’’. ‘‘ You could see that he wanted to do some­thing that he’d never done be­fore in his life, he wanted to go into a new area,’’ the di­rec­tor says of the ac­tor best known for his comic char­ac­ters in­clud­ing talk ra­dio buf­foon Alan Par­tridge.

Frears hopes au­di­ences may be in­ter­ested in a film about re­li­gion be­cause it means a lot to many peo­ple, al­though not to him.

Six­smith notes the book and film have af­fected peo­ple, which gives him, not pride, ‘‘ but there’s a sat­is­fac­tion that this is­sue has been aired’’.

Many read­ers told him how pleased they were some­one such as Philom­ena had the courage to tell her story. They too were women who had ba­bies taken away from them in the 50s and 60s and were told by the church they mustn’t talk to any­body about it.

Ac­cord­ing to the church, they had com­mit­ted a mor­tal sin giv­ing birth out­side mar­riage and had to keep their guilt se­cret.

That mes­sage was so deeply in­cul­cated into them, they kept their se­crets for 40 or 50 years, even from those clos­est to them.

‘‘ That did give the sense this was quite use­ful,’’ Six­smith says.

‘‘ If the film could do some­thing, what it should do is say this is quite an ur­gent prob­lem be­cause the women of Philom­ena’s gen­er­a­tion are in their late 70s or early 80s, so if some­thing isn’t done now to open up the records and throw a bit of light on what hap­pened it’s go­ing to be too late be­cause these women will die with­out know­ing what hap­pened to their ba­bies.

‘‘ That would be a ter­ri­ble thing.’’

(M) ★★★★ Na­tional re­lease

MOST peo­ple in Bri­tain, if not Aus­tralia, would be fa­mil­iar with Martin Six­smith, a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for the BBC who, from 1980, re­ported from Moscow for five years, Poland for three and Wash­ing­ton for four, cov­er­ing some of the most mo­men­tous events of the lat­ter stages of the Cold War and its af­ter­math. In 1997 he left the Beeb to work for the newly elected Blair Labour gov­ern­ment as di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, but he left un­der some­thing of a cloud and be­gan work­ing as a full-time au­thor, with books that in­cluded Spin in 2004 and The Lost Child of Philom­ena Lee five years later. The lat­ter story marked a de­par­ture for Six­smith as it was not pri­mar­ily a po­lit­i­cal book but a hu­man in­ter­est story about the life­long search by an Ir­ish­woman for the son who was taken away from her three years af­ter she gave birth to him, as a sin­gle mother, in the Ro­screa con­vent in County Tip­per­ary.

En­ter Steve Coogan, who read the book and saw in it a great role for him­self. He wrote the screen­play, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Jeff Pope, and co-pro­duced the film with the tal­ented vet­eran Stephen Frears di­rect­ing and Judi Dench play­ing the role of Philom­ena. Coogan is prob­a­bly still best known as a com­edy star (that’s how Dench saw him prior to the film, as she told me in an in­ter­view ear­lier this year) but he’s been grad­u­ally gain­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a se­ri­ous ac­tor in films such as What Maisie Knew and The Look of Love, among oth­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to the film, Six­smith is at a pro­fes­sional cross­roads when a chance en­counter leads him to Philom­ena Lee, whose story is, in­deed, a trau­matic one, and is briefly told in the film’s flash­backs. As a 14-year-old in the ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive Ire­land of 1952, Philom­ena — played in these scenes by So­phie Kennedy Clark — had a brief li­ai­son with a boy she met at a fair and be­came preg­nant as a re­sult. Her hor­ri­fied par­ents vir­tu­ally aban­doned her to the nuns of Ro­screa, whose at­ti­tude to­wards her was one of pi­ous dis­dain (the ex­treme pain she en­dured dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult birth was seen as ‘‘ God’s pun­ish­ment’’.)

To be­gin with she, and other un­mar­ried moth­ers, were al­lowed to see their ba­bies ev­ery day, but when her lit­tle boy, An­thony, was a tod­dler he was taken from her, and al­though in later years she pleaded with the nuns of Ro­screa to be told his where­abouts, she was al­ways de­nied that in­for­ma­tion. She spent decades won­der­ing what be­came of him and whether he ever spared a thought for her, his birth mother.

Coogan’s Six­smith is ini­tially unim­pressed with the idea of writ­ing a ‘‘ hu­man in­ter­est’’ story, which he sees as fod­der for ‘‘ weak­minded, ig­no­rant peo­ple’’, and for a con­sid­er­able time he adopts a pa­tro­n­is­ing ap­proach to the tena­cious Ir­ish­woman who reads ro­man­tic fic­tion and is, to say the least, un­worldly. De­spite doubts on both sides, Six­smith and Philom­ena set out on a quest to track down An­thony, start­ing at Ro­screa — where the nuns are now thor­oughly mod­ern and no longer wear habits — where they are in­formed, rather con­ve­niently, that all the records of past ‘‘ adop­tions’’ were de­stroyed in a fire.

The trail takes Martin and Philom­ena to Amer­ica, be­cause most of the Ro­screa chil­dren were adopted by wealthy Amer­i­cans at the ★★★ ✩ Na­tional re­lease time and at this point the film evolves into a sort of odd-cou­ple road movie, dis­tin­guished by the fre­quent bit­ing wit of the screen­play and by some very anti-Catholic sen­ti­ments. It also man­ages to be­come an amaz­ingly touch­ing film, thanks no doubt to the in­her­ent sen­ti­ment in the ma­te­rial but also to the two ex­cep­tional per­for­mances. Dench, hav­ing left the iconic M well and truly be­hind her, has never been bet­ter than she is here, and Coogan has his finest role to date as a snob who be­comes hu­man­ised by his re­la­tion­ship with a guile­less but gen­uinely de­cent woman.

Back in 2002, Scot­tish ac­tor-di­rec­tor Peter Mul­lan made The Mag­da­lene Sis­ters, an ex­tremely har­row­ing film that an­grily de­picted the Dickensian-like ap­proach taken by the Catholic Church in Ire­land to­wards sin­gle moth­ers, an at­ti­tude that con­tin­ued un­til 1966. It was a fine film, but few peo­ple ac­tu­ally saw it. Philom­ena is de­lib­er­ately pitched at a far wider au­di­ence and as a re­sult has been crit­i­cised as be­ing ‘‘ smug’’ and ‘‘ mid­dle­class’’. But it seems to me ad­mirable that such a ter­ri­ble story be brought to the widest pos­si­ble au­di­ence, and while on the one hand the film makes few con­ces­sions in its at­tack on the past be­hav­iour of church rep­re­sen­ta­tives, the mes­sage is made more palat­able by the film’s innate sense of hu­mour, by the in­tel­li­gent di­rec­tion and splen­did per­for­mances.

In fair­ness, though, it should be noted that Ir­ish nuns have ques­tioned the ac­cu­racy of these events as de­picted in the film. Nev­er­the­less, this is not a doc­u­men­tary (an open­ing ti­tle reads: ‘‘ In­spired by a true story’’) so no one should be sur­prised if some of the de­tails aren’t ex­actly the way they were.

I think it’s one of the best films of 2013, and Dench would prob­a­bly be a shoo-in for an Os­car this year if Cate Blanchett were not also in the race. NINE years af­ter the re­lease of Anchorman: The Le­gend of Ron Bur­gundy, a be­lated se­quel re­unites the cast and crew in fur­ther silly, but fre­quently funny, ad­ven­tures in Anchorman 2: The Le­gend Con­tin­ues. Fans of con­tem­po­rary Hol­ly­wood com­edy will need lit­tle re­mind­ing that Bur­gundy, en­dear­ingly played by Will Fer­rell, is a hope­lessly in­com­pe­tent tele­vi­sion news­reader, as well as be­ing sleazy and dimwit­ted.

Since the last film he’s mar­ried co-news­reader Veron­ica Corn­ing­stone (Christina Ap­ple­gate) and they have a son; but as the film be­gins Veron­ica is pro­moted and Ron fired by the boss of San Diego-based WBC, Mack Tan­nen (Har­ri­son Ford).

All is not lost, how­ever, and be­fore long Ron is re­cruited to par­tic­i­pate in an ex­per­i­ment in tele­vi­sion (this is the early 1980s): a 24-hour news ser­vice. Global News Net­work is owned by Kinch Al­lenby (Josh Law­son), an Aus­tralian who also owns Koala Air­lines, and he’s had the idea of this day and night news ser­vice.

The film, writ­ten by Fer­rell and di­rec­tor Adam McKay, takes a scat­ter­shot ap­proach. Some of the com­edy is broad but funny, some of it is so over-the-top as to be sim­ply ridicu­lous. And it’s much too long; the orig­i­nal ran for 95 min­utes and this se­quel stag­gers along for al­most two hours, which by any stan­dard is ex­ces­sive.

There are mo­ments of quite po­tent satire, es­pe­cially when the com­mer­cial in­ter­ests of Al­lenby — his air­line — be­come a story he doesn’t want his me­dia sta­tion to ad­dress, but they’re gen­er­ally un­der­cut by the triv­ial na­ture of much of the ma­te­rial. As Ron’s three prin­ci­pal col­leagues, Steve Carell’s dopey news­reader Brick is al­most painful in his stu­pid­ity, while Paul Rudd and David Koech­ner pro­vide more con­ven­tional char­ac­ters.

There are out­ra­geous racist jokes, es­pe­cially those cen­tred around Linda (Mea­gan Good), Ron’s im­me­di­ate boss and a beau­ti­ful AfricanAmer­i­can he starts to date (one of the film’s fun­ni­est scenes is the one in which she in­vites him home to have din­ner with her fam­ily), and there are guest stars ga­lore.The hype for this film, and the en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity of Fer­rell and Bur­gundy, will en­sure its suc­cess but it’s a pity the qual­ity of Anchorman 2’ s best scenes is un­der­cut by its ex­cesses.

Philom­ena

Stephen Frears, left, and fac­ing page; be­low left, Judi Dench (Philom­ena) and Steve Coogan (Martin) meet a col­league of Philom­ena’s lost son in

Anchorman 2: The Le­gend Con­tin­ues

Will Fer­rell and Christina Ap­ple­gate in

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