Road Trip Double Bill

Caught up with a couple of well-received recent films on DVD, which turned out to be both variations on the road trip movie, so I've stuck them together here for handiness.

Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013) is based on the true story of retired nurse Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and her search for her long lost son who was taken from her when she served as a teenager in one of Ireland's notorious Magdalene laundries in the 1950s. Helping her in the search is journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who has reluctantly decided to do a 'human interest' story to kick start his career again. Together they travel to the US to track down Philomena's son, forming an odd kind of friendship along the way.

Philomena doesn't do anything groundbreaking, but it doesn't have to, because what we have is a great story, told efficiently and affectingly. Dench got most of the plaudits for her touching portrayal of a remarkable, compassionate woman, but Coogan deserves much praise as well, not just for his performance, but for his excellent script (co-written with Jeff Pope), which balances the tragedy of the story with nicely-judged humour, without ever slipping into outright sentimentality. The odd couple pairing allows him to use the contrast between Sixsmith's anger at what he uncovers, and Philomena's more Christian stance, as a structure to explore themes of faith, forgiveness and personal gain. If you don't care much for the Catholic church, then this is unlikely to change your mind, but there's no doubt that Philomena, a devout Catholic, is someone who deserves much respect. Naturally, the true-life events have been condensed and slightly altered for dramatic effect, but this is still a very worthwhile watch and a sobering reminder of what so many women endured at the hands of the Catholic Church during a(nother) shameful period of Irish history.

Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013) fits nicely with Payne's previous films About Schmidt and Sideways as a bittersweet trilogy exploring male disappointments and regrets about life. Here, we have the cantankerous old Woody (Bruce Dern) insisting on travelling hundreds of miles to pick up a non-existent cash prize, so his exasperated son David (Will Forte) decides to humour him by driving him there. Naturally, in standard road movie fashion, he learns more about his father along the way. This is a bit of a slow-burner; a melancholy, but often funny, meditation on how both lives and places get forgotten as time moves inexorably onwards. It's fitting that Dern, stalwart of so many 70s movies, should star, as this recalls many of that decade's character-driven films. The Last Picture Show in particular seems an obvious touchstone, not just because of the similar exploration of small-town community and family relationships, but also because of its crisply beautiful B&W photography. Around Dern, there's a host of nice supporting performances and the whole thing builds to an affecting climax. If you have parents, it might remind you that they had lives before you came along. If you have children, it might inspire you to tell them a bit about those lives. Either way, it will hopefully make you determined to take that road trip with your loved ones sometime soon. Although don't come running to me if it all ends in tears and bitter family feuds.

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