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Viewer Guide: Fearless and Philomena

August 14, 2020 | Richard Peña


Fearless (1993)

This week’s classic is Fearless, a 1993 drama adapted by Rafael Yglesias from his own novel and directed by Peter Weir.

Jeff Bridges stars as Max Klein, a San Francisco-based architect who experiences a horrific event that most of us try to never even think about: surviving a plane crash. Ordinarily a nervous flyer who’s alarmed by every tiny disturbance, when Max’s flight becomes the extreme statistical rarity of encountering an unrecoverable technical problem, Max finds himself strangely at peace when faced with the prospect of dying. Emerging from the crash miraculously unscathed, Max’s surreal calm enables him to heroically lead other passengers to safety. And after simply walking away from the burning wreckage, Max tries to reenter his life as if nothing much has happened, yet remains possessed by an irrational invincibility, an attitude that becomes increasingly difficult for his wife Laura, played by Isabella Rossellini, to understand—as well as live with. Becoming withdrawn from Laura and his young son Jonah, Max grows more and more determined to help Carla Rodrigo, played in an Oscar-nominated performance by Rosie Perez, another survivor who has been profoundly traumatized by the death of her infant son in the crash. Brushing off the help of an airline-appointed PTSD psychiatrist played by John Turturro, as well as a lawyer fixated on negotiating the best insurance settlement played by Tom Hulce, Max seems not only in distinct danger of losing his marriage, but of never coming to terms with his traumatic experience…until the specter of sudden death revisits him yet again.

With aspects of the film’s fictional plane crash modeled on the actual crash of United Airlines flight 232 in 1989, pre-production of the crash site sequence required ten days of preparation at a cost of $2 million. With the role of Max Klein being one of Jeff Bridges’ personal favorites, Bridges prepared for portraying Max’s psychological state by talking with his friend Gary Busey, who had suffered traumatic brain injuries following a 1988 motorcycle accident. And interestingly, director Peter Weir later commented that working on the film helped him tame his own fear of flying that had become increasingly problematic in his later life.


Philomena (2013)

This week’s indie is Philomena, a 2013 drama directed by Stephen Frears.

Adapted from British journalist Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 nonfiction book, Philomena is the partially fictionalized story of Philomena Lee, a London-area resident born in County Limerick, Ireland in 1933, and portrayed in her senior years by the magnificent Judi Dench. In a layered structure, the film establishes how Sixsmith and Lee first met. Played by Steve Coogan, Sixsmith is a former BBC correspondent recently fired from his job in Tony Blair’s government for—according to him anyway—exaggerated reasons. And while at first glance Philomena looks like a typical British grand-mum, flashbacks reveal her traumatic secret. Becoming pregnant at the age of 18, Philomena quickly learns the terrible price for being an unwed mother in Catholic Ireland. Shunned by her family, she’s sent to have her baby in secret at the Sean Ross Abbey in the town of Roscrea, and after the baby’s birth forced to four years of menial labor in the convent laundry to pay off the nuns’ “generosity” for taking her in. When Philomena finally divulges her long-held secret to her daughter Jane, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, Jane makes an impromptu pitch to Sixsmith upon encountering him at a party—might Philomena’s story become his next journalistic project? Initially, Sixsmith begs off—human interest stories aren’t his thing—but perhaps the story behind Philomena’s story might be more important than he first thinks?

The scandal of the “Magdalene Laundries”—institutions which for years provided shelter for unwed mothers and other “fallen women”—has rocked the Roman Catholic world since the truth of their cruelty and abuse was finally revealed in the 1990s. Released to mostly critical acclaim and garnering four 2013 Oscar nominations including Best Actress for Judi Dench and Best Picture, Philomena does take a number of factual liberties in dramatizing Martin Sixsmith’s book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” Philomena did not actually accompany Sixsmith on his trip to the US, and Sister Hildegard—the wheelchair-bound nun Sixsmith confronts at the end of the film—had been dead for several years by the time Sixsmith began his investigation. And Philomena ultimately learned of her son’s death from a convent nun, and not from Sixsmith’s online research.

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