When I was a kid, many Saturday nights my sister and I sat with our mom to watch PBS and their block of British comedies: Keeping Up Appearances, Chef, Fawlty Towers and As Time Goes By. And as much as “the Bucket woman” tickled our fancies, it was the last show of the night that always intrigued me. As Time Goes By starred Geoffrey Palmer and Judi Dench as former lovers that rekindled their affair decades later. I can’t quite place the reason why this show over all the others fascinated me. Was it the dry humor? Was it the absence of a laugh track? There was something about that show that drew me in. After watching Philomena, I could finally put my finger on it. Dame Judi Dench is a master at her craft.
Dench, in all her sleuthing glory, portrays Philomena Lee, a woman who gained worldwide notoriety for attempting to find the son she gave birth to out of wedlock that was subsequently taken from her by Irish nuns in the 1950s. On her journey Lee’s accompanied by Martin Sixsmith, a writer down on his luck after getting sacked by the Labour Party as an adviser and sympathizes with her plight, seeing this as a worthy story to pursue. Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, helps to uncover more than just a stolen child, but an even larger conspiracy that unravels like a good British mystery. The film is based on Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and is directed by Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen).
While Coogan’s and Dench’s chemistry radiate on the screen, the film itself is mediocre at best, relying on artistic license and slight exaggeration to push the story along in an entertaining fashion. Most viewers will see this as more an indictment on the Catholic faith than Philomena’s search for answers, and they’d be correct on most accounts. Every film needs an obstacle, and for this situation there were far less acceptable choices from the one ultimately used that would have hurt the film overall. I understand the reasoning behind the plot choice, and it certainly allowed Dench to sink her teeth into the story and show us why she’s so good.
Philomena is nominated for four Academy Awards, as well as three BAFTA awards (winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay) and three Golden Globes. While Best Picture seems to be a long shot, one category that may get some traction is for Alexandre Desplat’s original score, which is truly delightful and varied given the many moods the film takes on. Desplat has been nominated for an Oscar in six of the past eight years, so he’s certainly due for a golden statue.
For Dench, she has a massive hill to climb to win Best Actress this year, going up against Cate Blanchett, Amy Adams, Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock, and given her failing health as of late, her presence in Hollywood during the Oscar promotional tour has been miniscule, which unfortunately may also hurt her chances. What won’t hurt her chances is the performance she gives on-screen. Her ability to show compassion, wonderment, strength and vulnerability with just a few words and a wry smile is what makes Judi Dench one of her generation’s greatest actors.
Philomena is currently in select theaters and will be on DVD and Blu-ray this April.
UPDATE: No luck finding Oscar for Philomena this year, as they were shut out of all nominated categories, but it’s still worth a watch. Look for it on Blu-ray and DVD April 15.