Odd couple on the trail
Philomena Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
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.
Stephen Frears, left, and facing page; below left, Judi Dench (Philomena) and Steve Coogan (Martin) meet a colleague of Philomena’s lost son in
Will Ferrell and Christina Applegate in