Stevie Wonder was warbling away as I emerged from my slumber this morning. His tune, ‘Isn’t She Lovely’, caused me to reflect, as much does these days, on the ageless beauty of women – those in my life, as well as those portrayed on screens small and large. My mind drifted to two in particular as ‘Early AM’ rattled on about the extreme heat of and fire danger presented by the current weather conditions over south-eastern Australia. They pair concerned were from the big screen.
The first duo of movies I have viewed this mint new year both featured stars whose initial beauty of youth have long deserted them. One is a Dame in real life, the other was once married to a Sir. Both have shed the flawless skins of their twenties and now sport the lines of maturity – lines that still point to the beauty beneath the mere external; lines that, in this day and age, are no deterrent to their star power. They ever increasingly possess the skill to express any desired emotion in their respective roles with an ease younger starlets will need years to perfect.
As that same ‘Early AM’ carried news of yet another inquiry into the foulness perpetrated by the Catholic church, this time in the UK, ‘Philomena’ was bought to mind. Dame Judi Dench, in her part as the eponymous hub of this movie, had for all her life suffered from the heart-wrenching hollowness of a child ‘forcefully’ taken from her by this unfeeling, to put it mildly, ‘Christian’ organisation. The removal did not occur immediately after childbirth, but several years further down the track – well and truly after a bond had developed between mother and son. As we later discover the child is sold – that’s right, sold – to American adopters (they being the only ones back then able to afford the church’s stiff prices). ‘Philomena’ is not a story of the expected ‘happy everafters’ either.
The vibrancy of youth that led our central figure to commit the ‘mortal sin’ has disappeared by the time Steve Coogan meets her in the guise of Martin Sixsmith, a one time spin doctor for the high and mighty who has fallen from grace with a thud. He is trying to resurrect his journalistic career and Philomena’s story is the vehicle. In the Stephen Frears’ directed screen rendering, Coogan plays his role with sensitivity, stepping back and allowing the Dame to ply her craft, which she does impeccably. We watch in awe as she transforms from a meek, beaten-down woman to someone unwilling to be trodden on any more, even if ever-ready to forgive. From dowdy frump Philomena’s beauty and feistiness comes increasingly to the fore, under Sixsmith’s prodding, as the journey proceeds. The scene where she convinces the journalist to remain in America is priceless, but within minutes Dench has us reaching for our tissues as she takes yet another hit to her hopes.
There is steel in Judi Dench as she battles to keep a career going despite suffering from severe macular degeneration. She will not let it take over her life, just as Philomena, in this true tale, in the end refused to allow what the Catholic church did to her define her existence. As the award season is on us, understandably this performance has been lauded and listed. In a competitive field this year Dench will give strong opposition and even if she remains ungonged, her ‘Philomena’ is already on my list as candidate for film of the year. Hopefully there are many roles remaining for this elegant, beautiful woman.
Although both Dame Judi and the female actor at the fulcrum of ‘Saving Mr Banks’ missed a Golden Globe due to the searing performance of Cate Blanchet in ‘Blue Jasmine’, we nonetheless, with the second of my two viewings, saw a consummate headliner manipulate us into our tissues as well. She plays PL Travers, the author of ‘Mary Poppins’, as she does battle with Walt Disney to protect the integrity of her characters in his film version of her children’s classic. As with Coogan, Tom Hanks, as the Fantasyland king, gives us a muted performance to take second billing to Brit veteran Emma Thompson, bringing to life the Australian writer. These days Ms Thompson is no longer the darling of stage and screen as she was when in marital partnership with Sir Kenneth Branagh, but she still possesses actorly chops enough to carry a movie like this. It is probably a cakewalk for her, but such is her adeptness in the role the nominations keep coming. As with ‘Philomena’ this is a movie of transformation, as to be expected, but in this case a Disneyfied one as in real life the central harridan stayed true to her unappealing self. Paul Giamatti does a pleasant turn as the driver who was instrumental in the crusty one’s eventual softening, with this ‘West Wing’ fan pleased to see BradleyWhitford emerge from that show to delightfully play one of the co-writers of the 1964 film. Rachel Griffiths gets a look in as well. The Australian flashbacks, featuring Colin Farrell as Travers’ antipodean father, to me, lacked authenticity, but overall the two hours spent watching the journey of a reluctant author to the glitz of Hollywood was time not wasted. And here is a tip – do remain seated through the end credits.
As Tinsel City slowly wakes up to the paying power of the greying generation – we who want more from the muliplexes than the crash, bang wallop of noisy CSG generic fodder, then so more movies of rich reward as the aforementioned pair will be produced. In turn, this will enable us to see venerable thespians at the height of their powers. They still retain beauty more than enough to turn the heads of us too savvy to be mesmerised by the latest nubile darlings Hollywood throws up then throws out once they are ‘past their peak’. We want substance alongside screen beauty. Dench and Thompson, along with Mirren, Streep, Weaver, Hazlehurst and increasing numbers of others are providing it for us. ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ could just as well apply to these grand dames as to Wonder’s infant daughter Aisha.
‘Philomena’ website = http://philomenamovie.com/
‘Saving Mr Banks’ website = http://www.disney.com.au/movies/saving-mr-banks