Sponsored by ST. ERMIN'S HOTEL, LONDON
Release Date: 1 November 2013 (UK)
Director: Stephen Frears
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
Screening Reviewed: London Film Festival American Express Gala Press Screening
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Stephen Frears is rapidly becoming the industry’s go-to guy for crafting powerful, intelligent and surprisingly moving film experiences based off of real-life, usually British, stories and events. His latest, Philomena, is one such terrific story that, much like his re-imagining of the events surrounding Princess Diana’s death in his superlative The Queen in 2006, does a sublime job of reminding us there is often nothing more disarming, surprising and cinematic than real life happenings.
Based, with noted fidelity, on the real life search for a long lost son by Irish pensioner Philomena Lee (Judi Dench in another exemplary turn) with assistance from recently disgraced government adviser and journalist Martin Sixsmith (a confidently subdued Steve Coogan, Dench gets most the laughs here), is a terribly human story buoyed by its truthfulness and meticulously judged balance of humour, heart and pathos throughout. Frears has a self-confessed penchant for ‘odd couples’, the surprisingly sassy interplay between Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair and Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth II being one of The Queen’s most unexpected delights, and it is a similar dynamic with Coogan and Dench that cements Philomena as one of the most delightful and engaging dramas of the year.
Indeed, Coogan’s journey as Sixsmith, from disinterested opportunist who latches onto the story plight in the hopes of a 'human interest' scoop to boost his lagging career through to becoming an involved, surrogate son of sorts who ultimately becomes something of the audiences conduit for rage at the injustices and revelations they uncover, is beautifully married with Dench’s principled, endearingly dotty and unwittingly hilarious Philomena, who doesn’t cower to filmic convention but instead beams with radiance, charm and heartbreaking sincerity by the clout of her convictions and the hardships she has and continues to face.
One of the undoubted highlights of this years London Film Festival, this is tender, thoughtful and intelligent moviemaking at its finest. Coogan grounds the film whilst Dench lends it its irrefutable heart and charm, with Frears steering the ship with his trademark affinity for drawing out the humanity, conflict and drama from even the most mundane of exchanges and occurances, retaining The Queen’s welcome comedic undertones and keen sense of pace and progression in the process. Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope’s funny, touching, shrewd and bravely non-prescriptive adaptation work is another noteworthy ingredient in one of the best British Films of the past few years, one brimming with authenticity, wit and warmth, and that comes wholeheartedly recommended indeed.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * * (5 out of 5 Stars)
DON JONSponsored by ST. ERMIN'S HOTEL, LONDON
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore
Screening Reviewed: London Film Festival Laugh Gala Press Screening (sponsored by Empire Movie Magazine)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
It’s so easy to imagine how Joseph Gordon-Levitt could have pandered to studio mentality and demographics by churned in a much safer and watered-down version of his romantic comedy directorial debut Don Jon. The ingredients were all in place for another Apatow-lite cookie cutter rom-com - Gordon-Levitt himself and so-hot-right-now Scarlett Johansson being the notable pre-requisite attractive, popular leads, and a general premise - arrogant lethario finds true love, stops objectifying women - that can essentially write itself to box office success.
However, enormous credit must go first and foremost to the writer-director for crafting what is essentially a reactionary response to the ephemeral idealism of such films - the likes of which he even cannily parodies with Scarlett Johansson’s character being obsessed with such formulaic rom-com drivel (aided here with satirical cameos from the likes of Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum). It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to call Don Jon the anti-romantic comedy, as there are a number of tropes and touches that borrow comfortably from the genre, but there is an almost fearless confidence in which Gordon-Levitt strips back the falsehoods and, practically from the very first frame, repeatedly strikes us with some stark, decidedly adult realities concerning sex, love and, in an admirably enforced and directly addressed through-line, addiction to porn.
The titular character is himself not an overly likeable figure, but he is at least a more honest and believable individual than the templates from which he is sprung. Furthermore, the eventual journey and progression he goes on, courtesy of his relationship with Scarlett Johnasson’s sizzling Barbara, and a blossoming friendship with Julianne Moore’s troubled fellow student Esther, is bravely unconventional and re-affirming. The two lead characters are pitched as equally flawed people, again a neat and welcome touch, particularly with Barbara, initially seeming full of sass and confidence only to gradually reveal a controlling, uncompromising and overly idealistic mentality towards men which is equally as impractical and prohibitive as Jon’s compulsions.
Gordon-Levitt, Johansson and Moore all put in engaging, effective performances, presenting three very distinct and believable characters who somehow mesh to form one continually surprising and diverting journey. As a director, Gordon-Levitt crafts a fun, spirited debut which, along with its confidently unconventional plotting, bounces along with energy and charisma and some neat recurring structural motifs as Jon continues to acknowledge, atone for then repeat his cyclical pattern of self-defeat and addiction. It is also at times a surprisingly erotic and genuinely sexy experience that just manages to keep a cap on becoming unnecessarily explicit or egregious.
It isn’t a perfect experience - Jon’s family as supporting characters are almost achingly atypical, for instance, with the dinner table scenes an amusing but overly familiar collection, and the films’ very antithetical and welcome ending nonetheless comes across as rather abrupt and sudden, a late development feeling organic to the story told but rushed through and feeling devoid of perhaps another scene or two’s development and progression.
In all though, Don Jon is a repeatedly funny and far more insightful outing than it would at surface seem to offer, and represents a welcome side-step to the romantic comedy genre with a confidently unconventional debut from a talented actor now demonstrating the makings of a very capable writer-director. Gordon-Levitt approaches his triple threat role with real verve and gusto, and with capable, well-realised supporting turns from the likes of Johansson and Moore in particular, crafts one of the most adult, and indeed mature, mainstream comedies of the year.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * (4 out of 5 Stars)
Our LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013 reviews and coverage are sponsored courtesy of ST. ERMIN'S HOTEL, LONDON
The 57th BFI London Film Festival ran in full from 09 - 20 October 2013 in partnership with American Express. Press Screenings for the festival began 23 September 2013.