Gloria and Philomena: Travels with mums

Ryan Gilbey praises two new films, by Sebastián Lelio and Stephen Frears, in which two women are coping with the wreckage of their lives from the far side of middle age.

Gloria (15). Philomena (12A)
dir: Sebastián Lelio. dir: Stephen Frears

It’s not so much rare as unprecedented for audiences to be presented with two films about the emotional lives of middle-aged or elderly women in the same week. Gloria is an optimistic character study of a 58-year-old divorcee on the Santiago singles circuit, while Philomena is the story of a woman in her seventies trying to trace the child she gave birth to 50 years earlier. The differences in the approach and sensibility of each film are obvious enough to allow them to work as a mutually nourishing double bill. They also happen to share the same approximate message, pertinent to modern-day cinemagoers as to human beings in general: don’t put up with a bad lot. Don’t settle.

With her amused, sceptical eyes framed by whopping Deirdre Barlow glasses, Gloria (Paulina García) greets the world around her as a faintly baffling joke. She has an office job, two adult children and an apartment through which a pink, hairless cat, ignored by its lovesick owner upstairs, is given to padding uninvited. The camera picks out Gloria at the bar in a packed disco. On the dance floor, she makes eyes at the crumpled Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a former navy man who runs his own paintballing park. Soon she’s in bed with him, in a scene that breaks one of the persistent taboos of sex in cinema: thou shalt not show bodies that have succumbed to gravity, unless for comic effect.

The precedents for such stories are often simplistically celebratory (Shirley Valentine) or grimly cautionary (Looking for Mr Goodbar). Gloria takes another tack. The tone is one of scrutiny: it’s a highly interested piece of work that explores how Gloria’s decisions, philosophy and future are shaped by those around her – from her daughter, Ana (Fabiola Zamora), a footloose young woman on the verge of responsibility; to Rodolfo, who brings with him an entire airport carousel’s worth of baggage; to the fluid setting of Chile itself. It would have been easy to sneer at the singles bars, mid-range hotels, yoga classes and cluttered flats, but Lelio’s compositions are buzzing with vitality: there isn’t a judgemental frame in the entire film.

Gloria’s journey is free from artificial flashpoints or climaxes. (Her one extravagantly triumphant act is as ridiculous as it is inspirational.) Instead, it assumes mythic dimensions. Totems and portents pop up along the way as if in a dream or quest: a skeleton puppet with clacking bones influences one decision she makes, and the appearance of a luminous peacock prefigures another. Then there’s that ugly cat, which perches in a memorable shot beside the naked Gloria, as though standing sentry over Sleeping Beauty.

The audience never feels cornered into its emotional responses to Lelio’s film, whereas Philomena is all about pressing our buttons. That is no slight. There are button-pushers and then there is Stephen Frears, who knows how to calibrate precisely the revelations that litter this fact-based story, without making us too ashamed of any gasps or goosebumps.

Steve Coogan brings the nicely clipped style of the screenplay he has co-written with Jeff Pope to his portrayal of Martin Sixsmith, the journalist and former Labour communications director. He grudgingly takes on a human-interest story concerning Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who was installed in a convent after falling pregnant in 1950s Ireland; nuns took her son from her arms to be adopted by persons unknown. On the occasion of her child’s 50th birthday she resolves to find him.

What follows is a road movie hampered by the episodic nature of that form. Even a director as experienced as Frears can’t make endless establishing shots and footage of driving feel fresh, any more than he can pretend that scenes of Dench chirpily spouting the word “clitoris” isn’t shamelessly playing to the gallery.

Yet the emotional core of the movie is honourable. The rapport between Dench and Coogan resists mawkishness; although there is a pay-off scene in which authority is challenged, there is much in the story and the central relationship that is unresolved. Dench is as poignantly controlled here as she was in Notes on a Scandal. Her pursed lips twitch weakly, giving no hint to the outside world of the traumatic flashbacks to which we have access. Like Frears and Coogan, she is a grand keeper-inner.

The floodgates could have been taken off their hinges by the sentimental weight of the material but the actors and director keep everything in check. Just.

Gravity's angel: Paulina García trawls the singles bars of Santiago in Sebastian Lelio's "Gloria".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror