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Philomena: Blu-ray + Digital HD UltraViolet Review

Philomena (2013) movie poster Philomena

US Theatrical Release: November 22, 2013 / Running Time: 98 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Stephen Frears / Writers: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope (screenplay); Martin Sixsmith (book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee)

Cast: Judi Dench (Philomena Lee), Steve Coogan (Martin Sixsmith), Michelle Fairley (Sally Mitchell), Barbara Jefford (Sister Hildegarde), Anna Maxwell Martin (Jane Lee), Mare Winningham (Mary), Sophie Kennedy Clark (Young Philomena), Ruth McCabe (Mother Barbara), Peter Hermann (Pete Olsson), Sean Mahon (Michael A. Hess), Wunmi Mosaku (Young Nun), Amy McAllister (Sister Anunciata), Charlie Murphy (Kathleen), Cathy Belton (Sister Claire), Kate Fleetwood (Young Sister Hildegarde), Charissa Shearer (Peg), Nika McGuigan (Bridie), Rachel Wilcock (Mamie), Rita Hamill (Young Anthony), Saoirse Bowen (Young Mary)
Philomena is one of DVDizzy.com's Top 100 Movies of the Half-Decade (2010-2014).Philomena ranks 54th in our list of the Top 100 Movies of the Half-Decade (2010-2014).

Buy Philomena from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + Digital HD UltraViolet • DVD • Instant Video

For many, Philomena was 2013's least expected Best Picture nominee, but perhaps it shouldn't have been. It is the rare year when The Weinstein Company and the British film industry are not represented in the field for cinema's highest honor.
In addition to those angles, Philomena had the bonus benefit of speaking to older viewers, no minor achievement considering the median age of Academy members is 62.

Philomena had a tougher task of winning me over than its fellow Best Picture nominees, being the only one of its class I hadn't seen prior to the nominations announcement. Nonetheless, this film did win me over, earning classification in the middle of the pack. It lacked the splendor of Gravity, the power of Captain Phillips, and the general excellence of American Hustle, Nebraska, and Her, but compared favorably to the others and to the vast majority of 2013's cinematic output.

This film tells the remarkable true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irish woman looking for the son she gave up nearly fifty years ago. As a teenager, Philomena (played by Sophie Kennedy Clark in semi-extensive flashbacks) had a child out of wedlock. As was the custom in that time and place, she gave the child to Roscrea Abbey, who delivered and took care of baby Anthony in exchange for seven days a week of hard labor from the mother. For a few years while slaving away in the laundry room, Philomena was able to see Anthony for an hour each day. Then, the boy was abruptly adopted, never to be seen again.

Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) explains the romance novel she just read in great detail to journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan).

Philomena reveals this painful secret to her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) on what would have been Anthony's 50th birthday. At an event where she is waitressing, Jane brings the story to the attention of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a recently unemployed and disgraced BBC newsman who dismisses it as a human interest piece, the kind beneath him. He soon reconsiders, though, and agrees to help Philomena try to track down this missing son. Roscrea Abbey is little help to them, explaining they lost their records in a fire. But Martin and Philomena persevere and their research leads them to America, where they do further digging in an effort to reunite a now middle-aged son with the guilt-filled mother who's never stopped thinking about him.

The driving force behind Philomena is Steve Coogan, a British actor who has been intermittently trying to build a movie career in America for over a decade now. He's turned up in high-profile films, including the Night at the Museum adventures, Tropic Thunder, the first Percy Jackson, Marie Antoinette, and The Other Guys. Despite that record, he doesn't seem to have all that many fans in America, beyond Ben Stiller and me. Beloved in the UK largely for Alan Partridge, a character he's been portraying for over twenty years (most recently in a 2013 film that recently opened in just three US theaters), Coogan is a brilliant comedian whose gifts have somewhat been wasted in minor movie roles and forgettable dramas.

Crediting him as screenwriter, producer, and star, Philomena finally allows Coogan to shine. Though only recognized with a couple of minor English award nominations, Coogan is Dench's co-lead and a charming and capable one at that. A generation removed and from varied backgrounds, the two actors have terrific chemistry together. We don't mind at all that the character list thins out past these two; spending 90 minutes with these dissimilar characters on the road is a delight. A huge reason for that is that Coogan's screenplay, co-written with British TV veteran Jeff Pope, injects humor, humanity and life into what could have been a sad, sentimental story. Philomena plays like a road trip movie, one not bogged down by the weight and gravitas of its subject matter. This film fills in the gap between The Guilt Trip and major Oscar contender.

A young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) is devastated to see her young son taken away from the abbey they call home. Judi Dench was Oscar-nominated for her performance as Philomena Lee, a devout Catholic woman still bothered by the firstborn child she had to give up.

Philomena is directed by Stephen Frears, a director whose acclaimed works High Fidelity, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Grifters, and Dirty Pretty Things have all disappointed me to varying degrees. The past credit this film most reminds me of is Frears' best, The Queen. As on that 2006 drama, Frears is able to tastefully dramatize the recent past (subtly, Philomena is primarily set from 2002 to 2003) and to tastefully give these virtually contemporary events the weight and perspective they deserve.
Aided by an Oscar-nominated Alexandre Desplat score that nicely emphasizes the mystery angle, this international journey hooks us and stirs strong emotions without manipulation or hysterics. We care about this mission from the points of view of both mother and journalist. The pleasant contrast between the two in personality, religious views, and reactions to hospitality only brings us closer to them and enhances our investment in this trip.

Of the nine Best Picture nominees, Philomena received only the seventh-highest theater count and wound up with the sixth-highest gross in North America. Its nearly finished $37.5 million domestic performance was close to what 12 Years a Slave earned before its Oscar nominations and is neck-and-neck with Weinstein's star-studded August: Osage County, not bad for an unabashedly British import whose biggest star turns 80 this year.

Stretching the public's memory of Oscar night but also giving the film some distance from its equally acclaimed competition, Philomena hits Blu-ray and DVD this week from Weinstein distributor Anchor Bay Entertainment, the former edition also including Digital HD UltraViolet.

Philomena Blu-ray + Digital HD UltraViolet cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Video Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: April 8, 2014
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25)
Suggested Retail Price: $34.99
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Also available on DVD ($29.98 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Presented in 1.78:1, Philomena looks terrific on Blu-ray. True to theatrical exhibition, scenes from Philomena's young adulthood have a lightly grainy look. The rest is spotless, sharp, and clean. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio does a great job of handling dialogue and distributing Alexandre Desplat's winning score.

Judi Dench discusses her long acting career without promoting "Philomena" at all. The real Jane and Philomena Lee share some remarks from the red carpet of the film's AFI Fest premiere.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's handful of extras begin with an audio commentary by Steve Coogan and co-screenwriter Jeff Pope. Though fairly standard, their screen-specific remarks hold your attention.
Topics discussed include specific decisions made by director Stephen Frears and one by Harvey Weinstein, the use of CGI, rewrites and revisions, and bits drawn from real experiences. Other revelations include a trick to using artificial light to film at the Lincoln Monument, Martin Lawrence reluctantly giving his permission to feature Big Momma's House, and Coogan embracing his gray temples for the first time on film (but regretting he didn't suck in his stomach more).

On the video front, we start with "A Conversation with Judi Dench" (8:54, SD), an interview in which the actress talks about her career as a whole, from training and live television to theatre and James Bond. She recalls her career being reborn with 1996's Mr. Brown, whose premiere brought her to America for the first time in 38 years. Better than the promotional piece expected, this 2013 clip doesn't even mention Philomena at all.

Conversely, "The Real Philomena Lee" (2:47, SD) is disappointingly short and superficial. The real Ms. Lee and her daughter say a few words on the red carpet at the film's AFI Fest premiere and others talk about her, but this feels like an extended trailer and not the general making-of featurette that's needed.

A-ha! Steve Coogan answers questions at a December 2013 "Philomena" guild screening. Philomena steps up to some painfully familiar gates at Roscrea Abbey on the Blu-ray's menu.

Last and best, we get a Steve Coogan Q & A session (24:17, HD) from an unspecified December 2013 Guild screening. Former actress Timothy Blake asks Coogan about his process of optioning the book, taking some liberties, and filming in three different countries. The articulate funnyman needs little prodding to make some interesting revelations,
regarding the "grumpy" Jewish Frears providing an outsider's perspective, attempts to open up the story visually, and writing his own lapsed Catholicism into the film. The piece closes with Coogan answering unheard but easily surmised audience questions.

The disc opens with trailers for Lee Daniels' The Butler and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Neither is accessible by menu and Philomena's actual trailer is not included on the disc.

The menu takes the usual approach of playing clips and score over most of the screen. Frustratingly but characteristically, this Weinstein Blu-ray dampens the experience by not letting you resume playback or set bookmarks.

Inside the unslipcovered keepcase, an insert supplies the unique redemption code for the Digital HD UltraViolet included with your purchase. It's interesting to spot the changes that have been made from the US one-sheet to the cover art; Coogan and Dench have been separated slightly and "highly acclaimed new comedy" (what?!) has become "highly acclaimed film."

Philomena (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) begin their search for long-lost Anthony in green Ireland.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Though it plays a little loose with the facts, Philomena makes for a gripping presentation of a remarkable true story. Its Blu-ray isn't overflowing with bonus features, but what's here is very good and complements a fine feature presentation to add up to a satisfying release unlikely to be succeeded anytime soon. Both the movie and this disc deserve a look.

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Related Reviews:
2013 Best Picture Nominees: Nebraska • Captain Phillips • Dallas Buyers Club • Gravity • Her • American Hustle • The Wolf of Wall Street
New: August: Osage County • The Invisible Woman • Saving Mr. Banks • Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom • At Middleton
Directed by Stephen Frears: The Queen • Dirty Pretty Things • Lay the Favorite • Chιri • The Grifters
Judi Dench: My Week with Marilyn • J. Edgar • Nine • Home on the Range
Steve Coogan: What Maisie Knew • Our Idiot Brother • Ruby Sparks • The Other Guys
Nuns: Doubt • Sister Act & Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit • The Sound of Music

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Reviewed April 13, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2013 The Weinstein Company, Yucaipa Films, Pathι, BBC Films, BFI,
and 2014 Anchor Bay Entertainment, The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.