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.

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

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.