Rhys Johnson’s Quiet Corner: The Kings of Summer

Posted in Feature Films, Reviews, Rhys Johnson's Quiet Corner with tags , on March 12, 2014 by Gorilla

Welcome to Rhys Johnson’s Quiet Corner, a safe haven for filmmakers, film enthusiasts, film students and, perhaps most importantly of all, general procrastinators. If you’re a little tired from roaming the vast wasteland of the internet, why not help yourself to a pipe and a snifter of brandy, as we reminisce about films and stuff.  

The Kings of Summer

The Kings of Summer

Disillusioned with life with their respective families, The Kings of Summer is about teenagers Joe, Patrick and tag-along Biaggio run away from home to build a cabin in the woods where they spend most of their summer living off the land. Whilst in the woods, the three learn a lesson in friendship, independence and what it means to be a true man.

Masculinity is a key theme throughout the film and the main character, Joe (played by Nick Robinson), can be seen as quite inferior when compared to the rest of the other characters. His friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) has a broken foot sustained while wrestling; physically he’s the biggest out of the group and doesn’t let his broken foot get in the way of building the makeshift cabin, but he’s also very survival-savvy and takes offence when Joe leaves chicken bones on the floor because it attracts snakes. I got the feeling that Joe and Patrick have a solid relationship but there is a slight hint of resentment from Joe which takes over when a couple of girls they know start to visit the cabin.

The theme of masculinity is also the key thing that stands out when looking at Joe’s relationship with his father Frank (Nick Offerman, who I am a big admirer of). Frank is a single father who doesn’t put up with crap – he smokes cigars when playing Monopoly and, because it’s Nick Offerman, has a mighty fine beard. Joe’s attempt at growing facial hair while away is offensive, especially when compared with Frank. When returning to civilisation, Joe actually keeps a moustache, almost as a badge of honour and to show that he is capable of being a man. Joe is constantly trying to prove something to his old man but eventually takes on the characteristics of his dad that he hates the most, and, I suppose quite ironically, it boils over when playing Monopoly. We’ve all gotten angry over a game of Monopoly, right?

I found Joe to be a very frustrating character to deal with at first, but at the end of the film I actually quite liked him, despite him being a complete arsehole when girls show up. The relationship with his dad is volatile at best and the girl he fawns over has a douchebag boyfriend who treats Joe like garbage for no reason. There’s a brilliant mental image that Joe has when his crush, Kelly, tells him that she split up with her boyfriend, and that’s the window of opportunity he needed badly and one that I wanted him to take. Anyone who has been told by the girl they like that you’re “like a brother” to them has to feel for the guy, and it’s the reason that he turns into a tool. It’s not excusable for him to take his frustration out on Patrick and Baggio, but it’s a reason.

Patrick has baggage too: he’s on the high school wrestling team, can probably get any girl he wants, but is constantly emasculated and undermined by his parents. It’s unintentional on their part, but it’s relentless enough to give him hives. He seems like a genuinely lovely guy who just wanted to get away from his household for a while and I respected his attitude throughout the film, even when the fun starts to unravel.

It’s easy to draw parallels between this film and Sean Penn’s 2007 hit Into The Wild as they share similar themes and narrative. Chris McCandless set off for Alaska to ostracise himself from the strains of money, family and technology. Joe set off for the woods to spite his father, and prove himself as man to both his dad and the woman he has a crush on. The Kings of Summer never really digs deep enough to the core like Into The Wild though, probably because it’s not based on a true story like Into the Wild, but still has enough about it to be a really solid movie. If you want a more hard hitting message, then watch Penn’s more depressing, realistic and frankly superior film. If you want something a little lighter and possibly more upbeat, then The Kings of Summer is a decent watch.

If there’s anything to take from The Kings of Summer, it’s:

1) You can’t outman Nick Offerman. Don’t even try it.

2) Burn every Monopoly board you see, it’s the root of all evil.

3) Being the master of your domain is more than facial hair and cabin building ability, it’s about how you treat other people.

This was written by Rhys Johnson. Obviously. If you want, you can follow him on Twitter.

Rhys Johnson’s Quiet Corner: Good Bye, Lenin!

Posted in Feature Films, Reviews, Rhys Johnson's Quiet Corner with tags , , on March 12, 2014 by Gorilla

Welcome to Rhys Johnson’s Quiet Corner, a safe haven for filmmakers, film enthusiasts, film students and, perhaps most importantly of all, general procrastinators. If you’re a little tired from roaming the vast wasteland of the internet, why not help yourself to a pipe and a snifter of brandy, as we reminisce about films and stuff.  

Good Bye, Lenin!

Good Bye Lenin

Set in East Berlin, 1989, Alexander Kerner’s mother is a devout socialist. She lives and breathes socialism. So when she sees her son protesting the regime in East Germany, she suffers a near fatal heart attack and is rendered comatose for 8 months, which is just enough time for the Berlin Wall to come down and unite Germany. Knowing that the shock will potentially kill his mother, Alex tries to convince her that Communism is not only strong, but winning against Capitalism.

Good Bye, Lenin! is directed by Wolfgang Becker and stars Daniel Brühl as the main antagonist Alex. The film is labelled as a tragicomedy, which at first I was a little sceptical about because how do you make the circumstances surrounding a heart attack funny? Well you can, and this film does it brilliantly. The main source of comedy in the film is Alex desperately trying to change his surroundings to look like the old East Germany, for example he frequently searches through dumpsters looking for old pickle jars that his mother (Katrin Saß) used to enjoy, whilst in the background his old neighbour is ranting about “the good old days” before the East and West rejoined.

A lot of the other humour felt very “sketch comedy” to me, such as Alex making a speech about the domination of the East over the West whilst behind him a “Trink Coca-Cola” poster is being unveiled on the building behind him. One of the more meaningful images of the film is the statue of Lenin being transported out of the country via aeroplane just as Alex’s mother has stepped foot out of the flat for the first time since her heart attack. It’s funny because of the timing of it all and it should probably leave Alex’s plans in tatters, but it looks like Lenin is reaching out, thus strengthening the resolve of Alex’s fragile mother. And of course, Alex has to step up his game to keep up the charade.

I love how the progression of time is shown in the film because it uses historical footage as a backdrop rather than the main crop of the movie. Good Bye, Lenin! starts with footage of astronaut Sigmund Jähn going to into space, supposedly strengthening the position of the East, but this is used in the background as Alex’s mother is being harassed by government goons in the kitchen. Later on, the film uses real news footage of the Berlin Wall coming down and footage of the German 1990 World Cup success to show just how much times have changed, Germany is now one and they are the focus of the world. The nation rejoices. Alex and his amateur-director friend Lukas actually use the archive news footage to make fake news stories for Alex’s act. I’m a sucker for archive news (especially sports) footage, so I was happy how it was used and, at times, manipulated by Becker and the characters.

The standard of acting is brilliant throughout the film, especially from Brühl, Maria Simon (his sister, Ariane Kerner) and Saß. Brühl and Simon portray the hectic lifestyle of trying to recreate an East Berlin flat whilst having a small child and a boyfriend from the West in the household. I love Brühl’s portrayal of a kid trying to do right by his mother and going to any length to do it because in a way, he feels responsible for her heart attack. As the film goes in, he begins to feel accustomed to the little utopia he has created for his mother, at times wishing that the real world could be that way. Simon’s character shows the duality of the situation they’re in, on paper it’s a crazy solution for a rather intense situation and the cracks gradually begin to show throughout the film. She has a boyfriend from the West, a little daughter, another kid on the way and a job at Burger King after dropping out of school. She has already fully embraced the German unification, but also wants to support her mother and make her happy whilst she is still around.

Saß’s performance as Christiane Kerner is probably my favourite thing about the film. Christiane was a strong character and a strong mother before the heart attack, but after she’s left weak. Strong-willed, but weak. Saß brings a blend of strength and vulnerability to her character that really made me root for her and support her, but not pity her in any way. Even with all the turmoil around her, Christiane was still the matriarch of the flat. She had earned the respect those around her, which is probably why her circle went along with Alex’s plan rather than have nothing to do with it or come clean, as that could have broken her.

Good Bye, Lenin! has humour, smarts and emotion perfectly blended into a great story. I don’t know a damn thing about German politics (which probably shows throughout this) and, whilst the film doesn’t exactly delve into the nitty-gritty of Communism vs Capitalism, it has a sort of infectious charm that is thoroughly enjoyable if given the chance.

This was written by Rhys Johnson. Obviously. If you want, you can follow him on Twitter.

Box Set Review: Poirot Collection

Posted in Box Set, Box Set Review, Feature Films, Reviews with tags , , , on January 25, 2014 by Gorilla

It is in no way hyperbolic to suggest that a good box set is like the Ark of the Covenant of home entertainment. Whether it’s a filmmaker’s best work, a franchise, anthology or television series, DVD box sets provide plenty of incentive to stay inside, close the blinds, and reject the existence of society for a while.

Poirot Collection 
Release Date: 20/01/14 

Poirot Collection 00

Hercule Poirot is perhaps the most beloved of all fictional, mustachioed Belgian detectives. Like Arthur Conan Doyle before her, Agatha Christie grew weary of her most popular creation, describing Poirot as egotistical, as if that were a bad thing. In fact, Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes are intriguing because they’re difficult, they’re fun because they’re so awful. Poirot is no hero, he’s flippant and jovial in the face of murder most foul, and bad tempered and arrogant in polite company. He relishes the puzzle of a gruesome killing, and is ambivalent at best when it comes to the lives that are destroyed. Poirot is brilliant, there’s no denying that, but he’s also a bit of a prick. Happily, this trait wasn’t scrubbed out of the character in the film adaptations, indeed Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov positively revel in the delicious meanness and eccentricity of Poirot.

The Poirot Collection comes courtesy of StudioCanal and showcases three of Agatha Christie’s most beloved stories in shiny, blu-ray quality. Here’s some more words about the films.

Murder on the Orient Express
Sidney Lumet (1974) 

Poirot Collection 01

Murder on the Orient Express is about a murder on the Orient Express. The film’s director is Sidney Lumet, who has had previous experience directing twelve angry people, and so was a perfect fit for this particular story. Albert Finney is Poirot, playing him as a sort of prickly pear with mild psychotic tendencies. He grumps his way through most of the film, occasionally stopping to offer wisdom, or refuse to help people on the grounds that they are ‘boring’. By the time Poirot has cracked the case, and rounded up the suspects for a grand reveal, Finney has transformed from slightly irritable to totally manic. His deconstruction of the crime seems to go on forever, and the performance becomes more and more intense. Indeed, the final twist is all well and good from a story standpoint, but it’s really Poirot’s feverish excitement in his big speech that holds the attention. He’s a fantastic character, standing out from a star-studded cast that includes Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave and Sean Connery as Colonel Mustard. Overall the film holds up pretty well, although things do take a long time to really get going, and there’s no real sense of danger for anyone save for the one who is marked for death. Murder on the Orient Express is not a thriller, it’s a comfortable puzzle, it makes murder feel safe. But it’s fun, it’s a throwback to an earlier time, both in terms of it’s content and it’s structure, and it’s brought to life by some great performances.

Death on the Nile
John Guillermin (1978) 

Poirot Collection 02

Following in the tradition of Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile has a title that serves as an adequate description of it’s plot. The film is directed by John Guillermin, known for tackling Tarzan and King Kong, which is fitting when you consider Death on the Nile’s exotic location and subtle, gentile racism. Poirot has a new face, he is now Peter Ustinov (Prince John from Disney’s Robin Hood) an altogether more menacing character than Albert Finney, who at least had the grace to appear frumpy at all times. Ustinov’s Poirot is a lot more sinister in his conduct, feigning humility and even stupidity, all the while eavesdropping and taking notes. The film takes a while to kill off it’s victim, but there’s never any doubt about just who the victim is going to be, indeed there are even a few scenes that tease the kill. The film’s idea of creating mystery is to make every single character in the story hate the victim or at least have motivation for wanting them dead. After a while, it gets pretty absurd. The whole thing is held together by Peter Ustinov, who is a complete joy to watch from beginning to end.

Evil Under the Sun
Guy Hamilton (1982) 

Poirot Collection 03

The slightly more ambiguously titled Evil Under the Sun is, in many ways, a direct remake of Death on the Nile, but with a less exotic (and by extension; less interesting) setting. Watching Poirot solving this new jigsaw puzzle of a murder is still rewarding, but the conclusion is laughable at best, a cop-out at worst. You might as well just watch Death on the Nile twice. Still, the film is enjoyable for other reasons, and indeed these stories focus not so much on the who and the why as the how. It’s how the murderers almost get away with their crimes that’s important, who it turns out to be in the end is almost incidental. The main reason to watch this is, again, Peter Ustinov. Still, the film is definitely the weakest of the three. Evil Under the Sun was made in 1982 and so of course the 80′s permeates every second of the film. It’s impossible to tell when the story is supposed to be set, is it the 1940′s? If it is, it’s a very 1980′s 1940′s. There’s something about the 80′s, perhaps it’s the hair or the prawn cocktails, that just won’t allow for an accurate period piece. Go ahead, set your film in the 1940′s, the 80′s always wins.

This was written by David Knight.

Mainstream Review: Ida

Posted in Feature Films, Mainstream Reviews, Reviews with tags , on January 21, 2014 by Gorilla

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Gorilla Film Magazine is aware of films, television and games that are actually popular. We don’t put a lot of effort into covering that stuff, but we’re definitely aware of it. So here’s the Mainstream Review of the week.

Ida
Release Date: London Film Festival 2013

Ida, London Film Festival 2013

Winner of the London Film Festival’s official competition and of the Critics’ Prize in Toronto, Paweł Pawlikowski’s beautiful, soulful film Ida is a wonderfully simple story in which Anna, a nun-in-waiting, goes out to find her heritage before committing to the convent. Yet another beautiful black-and-white film in 2013, Ida explores post-WWII in Pawlikowski’s native Poland, where the titular character discovers she is in fact Jewish, named Ida and, unbeknownst to her, she is a war-torn orphan and thus goes in search for answers and closure for her newly-discovered family.

Ida’s triumph is that it is a film that reminds one of the simple pleasures a truly great film can produce. There’s a wonderfully natural feel about it, the film encompasses beautiful cinematography in a perpetually foggy Polish countryside, brilliant performances, especially from Ida’s maverick judge auntie Wanda (Agata Kulesza), and a wonderful, diegetic soundtrack which ensures the piece maintains its atmosphere.

World-weary Wanda takes on the impressionable Ida to show and protect her from her past. Kulesza is brilliant as the ex-authoritarian commissioner during the Soviet days, now a withered, fiery drunk who is more emotionally unstable than her steely veneer lets on. The opposition of Wanda and Ida drives the film in this nostalgic, monochromatic road-movie, much like Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.

Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska is brilliant in the leading role, going from shy and sheltered girl to a fully realised woman over the course of the reasonably short runtime (80 minutes) in a vital moment in Ida’s life. Over the course, she goes from knowing nothing of the outside world to experiencing art, in the form of the young Jazz band playing at the hotel she stays at with her auntie, love with an attractive band member (Dawid Ogrodnik), who hitches a ride with the pair and introduces them to John Coltrane, and inevitable loss.

For a debut performance, Trzebuchowska shines in her role, taking on the familiar coming-of-age arc with the subtle and subdued nature of a saint. Her chemistry with Ogrodnik, in their young, belated adolescent romance, sparkles in their brief screen time together with Pawlikowski breaking the film’s established form through music and visual inflections.

Ultimately, it is a treasure of a film for all its delicacies, embracing both a celebration of life and melancholia for it. Ida’s coming of age is akin to an entire nation’s, as Pawlikowski allegorically lays out Poland’s quietly aggressive issues with Catholicism, anti-Semitism and the communist state while in recovery from a damaging war. We learn as much about Poland’s pervading feelings of intimidation here as we do Ida’s, as both come to terms with a difficult, harrowing past.

This was written by Adam Turner-Heffer. You can read more of his words on the Gorilla website.

Mainstream Review: The Cat

Posted in Feature Films, Mainstream Reviews, Reviews with tags , on December 29, 2013 by Gorilla

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Gorilla Film Magazine is aware of films, television and games that are actually popular. We don’t put a lot of effort into covering that stuff, but we’re definitely aware of it. So here’s the Mainstream review of the week. 

The Cat
Release Date: 30/12/13

The Cat

Following the fortuitous release of Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy back in 2003, the world has had its eyes poised on South Korea. Since the niche market blew up almost a decade ago two things have naturally occurred; many Korean auteurs have been swept up by Hollywood and many inevitable remakes have be made (and failed). As we look to the new wave of Korean directors to illuminate something new and poignant, unfortunately the same can’t be said for Byun Seung-Wook’s latest furry K-horror The Cat.

Set predominately in a cat grooming salon in Seoul, we follow claustrophobic youngen So-Yeon (Park Min-young) as she grooms and decorates cute kitties for high profile customers. Content with her life of painting pink cheeks onto helpless cats, So-Yeon’s life is thrown askew after a client is found dead following a heart attack. Soon after So-Yeon learns of her recent customers demise, she adopts a Persian feline named Silky who not only brings its bad attitude but also leaves So-eon haunted by a mysterious cat eyed girl who lurks in the shadows. With the help of best friend Bo-Hee (Da-Eun Shin) and fresh faced police officer Joon-Suk (Kim Dong-Wook), So-Yeon has to slip out of her skin and confront her claustrophobia in order to solve the mystery and stop the murders that are surrounding her world.

Right off the bat, it is easy that the director Byeon Seung-Wook’s inspiration derives from Japanese horror. It feels a little derivative to that of Hideo Nakata’s macabre work such as DARK WATER and to a lesser extent THE RING. However unlike the electrifyingly intense Dark Water, The Cat suffers from some truly bazaar directional choices. The main point that distracted me was just how silly the events were as everyone around So-Yeon begins to keel over. Not only the deaths themselves were fairly daft but the situations themselves felt contrived. Arguably one of my favourite contrived scenes took place between a shuddering So-Yeon and her inept cop friend Joon-Suk as So-Yeon un-ironically questions what’s happening by uttering, “Can cats really kill people?”

So this is that kind of movie. Genre to its core and with no knowing levels of irony or humour. Byeon unfortunately plays it straight without having much fun. Not all horror leaves room for some laughs especially in Nakata’s work (Dark Water always gives me the willies), but there was certainty room for some chuckles in The Cat. The subject matter itself is very comical. I never cynically laughed at the movie but the conceit of the bobbled-hair cat girl is less threatening then the greasy haired ghoul in The Ring or the horrific ring tone from Takashi Miike’s ONE MISSED CALL.

Despite it’s questionable CGI cats, the movie is over all pretty enjoyable. If you remove your longing for something daft or at least the acknowledgement of it’s utterly bonkers monster then The Cat is a film worth checking out. At the very least if you are a self-confessed hound of J-horror then the film proves to be worth your time. Despite the movies tense scenes equating to little more then a jump scare it wasn’t the killings or the serviceable performances that kept me interested. Personally I am infatuated with all things South Korean so my attention was kept for long enough to enjoy the awkwardly plotted story as The Cat. What the film was fundamentally missing and what is important about J-horrors is that even if the monster itself is dumb or simplistic the way it gets to you in should be always be inherently traumatic; to the character on screen and to it’s audience. I’ll never be cured from Dark Waters or THE GRUDGE but at least I won’t have to add this to my list.

This was written by Oliver Hunt. You can read more of his words on the Gorilla website.

Gorilla in the Mist: Top Five Christmas Movies

Posted in Analysis, Gorilla in the Mist with tags , , on December 21, 2013 by Gorilla

Gorilla reporter Oliver Hunt spends most of his time wading through the thick, bug-infested jungle of the internet, in search of film-related news and content. When he’s not sinking beneath the Swamps of Sadness, to join the fossilised skeletons of former Gorilla employees, he’s submitting articles like the one you’re about to read. 

Oliver Hunt’s Top Five Christmas Movies to Watch at Christmas because Christmas

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With the merriest event of the year taken place with under a week to go I suppose it might be best to break free from the standard afternoon Christmas movie special and watch something truly unconventional. Yes, we are all bored of It’s a Wonderful Life by now (go on admit it), so why not break free from the mundanity of the family friendly Christmas flicks we are use to and lets push the limits of what counts as a ‘Christmas movie’.

So I suppose this list could be renamed as Movies which Are Loosely Set Around Christmas but what do you want from me? You’re not going to be watching any sort of Christmas flavoured movies any other time of the year? No one want’s to be reminded of Christmas in May. Until the spring sun warms us once more; this list is a very good enough excuse to dig these oddball flicks and settle in as the storm outside rambles on.

5. Brazil

Brazil

Brazil is possibly Terry Gilliam’s most surreal and dark film that still feels relevant decades after its release. This Orwellian tale of a low level government employee with delusions of grandeur batters off the Christmas spirit as he traverses the illogical futuristic wonderland of neon lights. Whilst the holiday season might not be crammed into every scene it can be hard not to notice Gilliam’s choice to include to winter season. It’s a long movie at over two hours but how often does the science fiction and Christ movie genre overlap?

4. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Nothing brings the family closer together then when viewing Park Chan-wook’s shocking thriller of child abductions, prison rape, graphic torture all the whilst circling around the festive season. Finding its place as the finale in Park’s glorious Vengeance Trilogy, his bookend to the trilogy is arguably his most visually seducing as the colours explode from the screen. Even though granny might be put off by the mindless bloodshed it’ll certainly make you feel grateful for what you’ve got this season.

3. Scrooged

Scrooged

It isn’t hard to see why Scrooged is paramount viewing at this time of year. Bill Murray takes on Charles Dickens’ over exposed A Christmas Carol and spins it into the story of cynical TV exec Frank Cross as he undergoes a midlife crisis on one of the busiest periods on the calendar. The humour still hits home some twenty-five years on and will leave you and no one can say no to a movie full of Murray’s terrific misanthropic one-liners.

2. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

It could be argued that Shane Black is fixated on the Christmas Holiday as the majority of his films are set around December. Think about it; Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight and even his latest dud Iron Man 3 all have a certain leave of Christmas spirit whilst not making them feel entirely like Christmas movies. The same is true for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. I’m always quick to admit that I am a total sucker for the classic noir genre, so with Robert Downey Jr.’s quick-witted thief turned private eye and Val Kilmer’s camp, sarcastic mentor; Shane Black really hits the nail on the head. A mix of black comedy, neo noir twists and some explosive fun right up until the end Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang could be your answer to a dull Wednesday afternoon.

1. Jingle All The Way

Jingle All The Way

Arguably the silliest movie on the list, Jingle all the Way is utter madness from beginning to end. Falling either between brilliant satire of American consumerism or fully embracing its sinister consumer side, the reason it’s top of this list is for neither reason. I remember seeing the trailer as Arnold Schwarzenegger pacing down a steam filled industrial corridor as a voice over lists the typical challenges we’re use to seeing Arnie up against such as terrorists, aliens, killer robots before announcing his greatest challenge: to buy his son the much sort after toy of the year. His only hurdle he needs to overcome arrives in the form of insane postal worker. Whilst few remember who Sinbad (who plays said postal worker Myron) was, the sheer fact that director Brian Levant managed to nab Arnie as the work-a-holic Howard Langston astounds me. The movie knows and understands the holiday’s dark side and embraces it. This doesn’t fall into Arnie’s golden years of naff action romps, but is leave you chuckling with excitement as he beats off a warehouse full of Santa Clause look-a-likes.

That’s the list and these are my recommendations. There are a heck of a lot of films I’ve missed so my honorary mentions go to Rare Exports, Home Alone, Die Hard, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, American Psycho, Eyes Wide Shut, The Hudsucker Proxy and In Bruges. 

This was written by Oliver Hunt. You can read more of his words on the Gorilla website.

Mainstream Review: Philomena

Posted in Mainstream Reviews with tags , , , on December 18, 2013 by Gorilla

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Gorilla Film Magazine is aware of films, television and games that are actually popular. We don’t put a lot of effort into covering that stuff, but we’re definitely aware of it. So here’s the Mainstream review of the week. 

Philomena
On release now

Philomena

Looking at the movie poster for Stephen Frears’ recent feature, Philomena, or even watching the trailer, it would be easy to be slightly misled as to the tone and substance of it. With the jaunty yellow background wash, swirling lines of hand-drawn landscape and bright smiles passed from the eponymous Philomena (Judi Dench) to journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), and the occasional charming witticisms found in the trailer, it would be tempting to think that, overall, the journey they go on, despite its tragic origins, will be one of relative ease, overcoming obstacles from one discovery to the next, all culminating in some form of a happy ending. You would in fact be wrong. If you were to view these things after the fact, you might think that they are somewhat at odds with the reality of the events that transpire on screen. What cannot properly be seen until actually watching the film and engaging with it is just how deeply hard-hitting a drama it is and the gross extent of the immorality at play. More than anything, it is a true story that arouses strong feelings of tragedy and anger.

Mothers, as with fathers and human beings in general, can come in all kinds of negative varieties – apathetic, absent, reluctant. But when you think of a mother and her relationship with her child, the image that is typically evoked is that of a fiercely loving parent who would do anything for the infants they bear, right through to adulthood and beyond. Such is the case with Philomena Lee, a young girl in Ireland who fell pregnant and was subsequently sent to live in a nunnery. During her time there – put to hard work under the (mostly) unforgiving gaze of the nuns who did not approve of their girls’ lascivious behaviour, and unable to leave for want of the finances that would allow her to do so – the young Philomena’s son, Anthony, is eventually sold to an unknown, faceless American couple, much to his mother’s racking anguish. Decades pass and Philomena, now an elderly woman still filled up with her loss, decides to break years of silence brought on by the immense shame she inherited from her time at the convent to continue the search for her lost child.

Philomena teams up with Martin Sixsmith, a former government adviser and journalist convinced to write a human interest story on her plight (leading to the book from which the film was adapted). Ultimately, their journey throws up more setbacks and disappointments than breakthroughs but with Martin, Philomena gets closer to the truth than she ever could have hoped to on her own and it is a very necessary thing for her to finally see this journey through to the end. A major point that was emphasised by Dench in playing Philomena – especially as she is a woman still living today – was the responsibility to both her story and her character, and she carries this off with a quiet integrity. Together, they make an odd couple – Philomena the adorable elderly Irish woman, eternally hopeful and optimistic, and Martin the religious cynic who cannot share her views on faith and forgiveness. He reflects doubts that live in many of us and, as a unit, their differing positions balance out to present neither an excessiveness of blind faith or outright anti-religion but an even mix, enabling us to fully appreciate these contrary beliefs (or lack thereof). It is an antithesis that will be of great emotional significance as events draw closer to the end.

It could be supposed that the warm, light-hearted front given off by the marketing material was executed in this way for a purpose. It reflects the inextinguishable compassion of the woman herself and her immense capacity for forgiveness, emphasised by Frears in saying that, ‘She bore her tragedy so lightly’. To be sure, the story presented to us is nothing short of heart-breaking and her grief unfolds plenty on-screen, but ultimately she does forgive and it is only through Martin’s anger – he who owes no loyalty or absolution – that we are able to vent our own rage on her behalf. However, although we can be incensed in her place, it would give Philomena no comfort to hold on to such bitterness for the rest of her days, crippled by her unbelievable loss. The lightness that is at play with the brutal reality is vitally important as we come to recognise not only the pain of what she has gone through but why she must and is still able to live with it. In the end, the abuse suffered is not properly atoned for but it is a great thing that she has been able to tell her story, not once but twice, and that finally these shamed Irish women have been given a voice. This in itself is at least something.

This was written by Angie Moneke. You can read more of her words on the Gorilla website. You can also follow her on twitter.

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