Older Women. Movies Reviewed: Philomena and If I Were You
This week the Toronto Film Critics Association awarded the 2013 Scotiabank Jay Scott Prize for an emerging artist to Matt Johnson, who made the fantastic movie The Dirties. Congratulations – great choice, great new filmmaker. Matt Johnson directed, produced and starred in that comedy/horror meta-movie I reviewed earlier this fall. This is could be the beginning of something big.
They say male movie stars can keep working until they die, but women stop being stars at age 35. It’s hard for older women to find lead roles in movies. Even Oscar winners. But they do exist. This week I’m looking at two movies starring award-winning, older actresses. There’s a British drama about a woman who wants to fill in a gap from her past; and an American comedy/drama about a woman who wants to undo a romantic triangle.
Dir: Stephen Frears
Martin (Steve Coogan) is a former high-power party politico who suffers a fall from grace. He finds himself back in his previous profession: journalism. Reluctantly at first, he ends up pursuing a story about a retired, working-class woman named Philomena. Philomena (Judy Dench) was young, unmarried and pregnant when she was sent to live in a nunnery. She loved her infant son. So, one day, she was shocked and horrified to see her little boy driven away, before her very eyes, by a rich couple! She wanted to keep him, but she never saw him again. He was gone, adopted.
Now, many years later, Philomena wants a chance to see him before she dies. The nuns claim to have lost all her records in a fire. So Martin decides to write about Philomena’s story and to help her find her long lost son. So off they fly to America. Philomena is suspicious. Maybe he’s just using her to sell his story. Martin, on the other hand, is maddened by her quirky opinions and constantly-changing decisions: I want to go home… Let’s stay for another week… Gradually, Martin’s heart softens as he and Philomena get to know and trust each other better.
Will they locate the adult son? And if they do, will he want to meet his biological mother? Will he even remember her? And, finally, will the convent ever explain why they did what they did?
This movie is a real tear-jerker. Based on a true story, it’s a very touching mother and son drama, with a few unexpected shocks and surprises. And there are at least two scenes that make the audience bawl. On the other hand, it’s quite sexless and sterile – not just the nuns. There’s no romance and no passion. Just anger at injustice, a sad longing for the past, righting wrongs, and a mother’s love for her child. Even though I could feel the movie deliberately tugging at my heart strings, it didn’t matter, since they did it so well.
Judy Dench’s character is rich and expertly played, while the always- funny Steve Coogan is a perfect foil. Well-directed by Steven Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, The Queen) with an excellent script, co-written by Coogan.
Wri/Dir: Joan Carr-Wiggin
Madelyn (Marcia Gay-Harden) is happily married and a successful professional. But when she accidentally spies her husband, Paul, eating a romantic dinner with a beautiful young woman — when he said he was working late — everything falls apart. Is he cheating on her? Is their whole relationship based on a lie?
Flustered and confused, she finds herself following the young woman home. But rather than confronting her, she ends up saving her life. And so they meet. The Spanish beauty Lucy (Leonor Watling) admits that her lover Paul is still married and hasn’t left his boring old wife, and Madelyn, in turn, confesses that she caught her husband – she calls him “Fred” – cheating on her with some “bimbo”. They decide to follow each other’s advice on how to rescue their respective relationships. But only Madelyn knows that Fred and Paul are the same man. Can she fool Lucy into leaving her husband?
To distract her, Madelyn encourages the aspiring actress to pursue other goals. She takes Lucy to an audition for a play, King Lear, but somehow ends up cast alongside her. Will Madelyn succeed in her scheme? Or will her web of secrecy come unraveled? And are and her husband still in love?
If I Were You is a cute comedy/ drama. It has some very funny sequences full of unexpected twists — it’s sort of a screwball comedy, with the main character juggling hidden identities and secrets. And the opening scenes – from one to the next to the next — are brilliant. But later on, the movie seems loaded down with clichés and groaners. You have to wonder why so much screentime is devoted to the theatrical sub-plot. That’s not what the movie’s about. Most of all, this movie is a vehicle for the lead actress, Marcia Gay Harden. She’s at the centre of every single scene, and all other characters exist only to react to her (they love, hate, fear or admire her). To like the movie, you have to like Marcia Gay Harden. I do like her, so I enjoyed this film. It’s clever, cute and worth seeing.
Philomena and If I Were You both open today in Toronto (check your local listings).
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com