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25 Movies to See Before the Oscars: 12. Philomena

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Nominations: Picture, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score

Judi Dench has played some formidable women in her time: the great Queen Elizabeth I, Jane Austen’s queen bitch Lady Catherine de Bourg, and James Bond’s steely boss M just to name a few. With Philomena she plays another badass lady but of a different kind of mettle – as the title character, Dench portrays a real-life plucky Irish woman in search of the son she was forced to give up after becoming pregnant as an unwed teenager. Written by and also starring Steve Coogan and directed by Stephen Frears, Philomena puts a delightful English spin on the buddy roadtrip comedy trope as Coogan’s defamed journalist Martin Sixsmith sets out with the spritely elderly woman in search of her long lost boy.

Philomena Lee spent a good period of her teen years working for a convent in payment/penance for the help she received with her newborn son Anthony, who was sold to an American family as a toddler. Fifty years later, plagued with the regret of never knowing her son, she decides to seek him out. Martin Sixsmith has just been fired from BBC (their man in Moscow and D.C., as he loves to remind everyone) and is looking for something to do with his time, seriously leaning toward writing a book on Russian history despite the disinterest of all he mentions it too – so he decides to do one of those human interest stories to revitalize his journalistic self. He is introduced to Philomena and, after some second-guessing, Martin decides to help Philomena track down her grown son. The two clash hilariously, their temperaments totally out of synch, with her warmth and moxie and frankness disrupting his grouchy, selfish, self-pitying inclinations. The mismatched pair line here breaks all boundaries, throwing out the usual maxims of annoying buffoon meets holier-than-thou straight arrow and instead giving the audience something less garish and more believable not to mention pleasant. Apart from that, this one of the few movies that it is better to know as little about as possible before you go to see it.

Frears has accomplished something quite lovely with this film, a return to form after some odd foibles like Lay the Favorite. The sweet-but-not-saccharine essence of his style flows harmoniously with Coogan’s script (penned with Jeff Pope), who has finally found something to do with his wit and knack for wordsmithery other than turning it into acquired-taste poison-dart humor. There are so many grand powerhouse films up for the same categories as Philomena, most of which have mighty campaign backing and large followings that will allow them to pass over this precious, adorable, and bittersweet movie without a second glance. Its story of forgiveness is beyond touching though, not to mention universally agreeable – it’s a movie anyone could watch and fall in love with, which is one thing most of the other Best Picture nominees can’t say for themselves.

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