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Toronto: How 'Philomena' and 'A Field in England' Represent Two Tendencies In British Cinema

By Kaleem Aftab | Indiewire September 12, 2013 at 8:48AM

Two British films, "A Field in England" and "Philomena" (both playing at the Toronto Film Festival), use comedy to depict real historical events. While they couldn't be more different from each other, together they demonstrate the great and many traditions of British comedy.
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Philomena

But "Philomena" isn't exclusively political in its humor. There is also a touch of the television series "Fawlty Towers" and "The Thick of It" in the fact that, while Coogan is the one seemingly calling the shots with his laconic wit, he comes off worse in most exchanges. Whether playing Alan Partridge, himself or Sixsmith, Coogan has difficulty being sincere. Nothing should be praised unless it really can't be helped.

The last thing Sixsmith wants to do is travel around with an old lady and he can't hide his antagonism towards the situation and her. She hates his constant desire to put down everything and tells him so. Indeed, much of the comedy comes from Dench acting like a school matron. After all, many of us Brits hate it when others are self-depreciating, especially when they're not in on the joke.

So whereas in "The Trip," Coogan and Brydon just try to outdo each other, in "Philomena" Coogan is instead chastised like a child. Dench is the perfect foil for him, not because she’s a joke-a-minute but because she can't stand his attitude and has mastered the art of the putdown. She's the matron from St Trinian’s -- an oft-found female figure in Ealing Comedies. That the film should occasionally nod to the same movie tradition is no surprise given that its characters' attitudes, rather than form and style, drive much of the distinctly British scree humor.

Other similarities between the characters in "A Field in England" and "Philomena" come from Frears depicting those who can loosely be deemed "life’s losers." Sixsmith's career is on the way down, and Dench plays a lady who has spent half a century mourning the loss of her child.  

It's the common character traits, deeply rooted in British comic traditions, that makes these two seemingly incomparable movies use many of the same methods for character development -- and humour -- yes, with a "u."

This article is related to: Reviews, British Film, Stephen Frears, Philomena, Judi Dench, Stephen Frears, A Field in England, Ben Wheatley, Toronto International Film Festival