As one of the films on my short list, had this been a year where only five were nominated, it’s also the one that could have easily been found on TV. Meaning, it just has that feel of something that pops into HBO one day and because Judi Dench is in it, you wind up watching it. And that’s OK considering a lot of films like “Philomena” go one to win Emmy’s and Golden Globe’s. I just never would have expected it to be among the Best Picture nominees from a year ago. Sure, I read about it long before it came out in theaters thinking it would be Oscar bait, but that doesn’t always translate into four nominations, including Best Picture. And I can’t help but think this film is way out of its league within the mixed bag of nominees this year, making me wonder had it not cleaned up at the Venice Film Festival back in September 2013, would I even be talking about it? Make no mistake about it, a good showing at film festival can propel a film a long way and in this case, it propelled them right into Oscar night, which is quite the achievement if you ask me. One that might be as good as it gets, given the stiff competition it is up against in all four categories it happens to be nominated for.
Ironically, what moved “Nebraska” into the group of final nominees is also what has “Philomena” here, which is writing. I can’t say it enough, but without a decent script, it’s hard to make it to the big dance in Hollywood. So, it’s good Steve Coogan was on board for this film, wearing hats as an actor, producer and writer. And out of the three, I think it’s his writing that I will give him the most credit for. Sure, he had some help from Jeff Pope, but being able to act out your own words has to give you some sort of an advantage. Of course, it didn’t hurt he was playing opposite a savvy vet like Judi Dench, who I will get to in a bit. Nevertheless, it was nice to see this story grounded with so much reality, a rare feat given how many unrealistic stories we get shoved in our face these days. And while I never read the ‘human interest’ book it was adapted from, I can imagine it does it justice through certain elements, which I’m sure is all Martin Sixsmith wanted when he signed his rights over. Even after watching it, I wanted to know more back-story of the convent and what drove them to the decisions they made during those times. That’s a credit to both writers, who deserve to be among the nominees with a chance to walk home with an Oscar next Sunday. I just doubt they will given what “12 Years a Slave” just did at the BAFTA Awards last week, an award show tailor made for a British hit like “Philomena.”
As the movie poster inadvertently gives away, there are really only two stars to speak of in this film. Sure, the supporting cast was there, but you couldn’t think of a one of them, for this film was all Steve Coogan and Judi Dench. Two English actors that are very well known wind up being the perfect combination for this story and film. And I’ll admit, going in, I thought we would see the same Judi Dench we have seen so many times before. Nothing new, just solid acting from start to finish making me question her now seventh Oscar nomination. Well, I was wrong, as this was a different Judi Dench that we have grown accustomed to over the past 10-15 years. At least to me, who honestly, has not seen too much of her early work on British television. How could I? I live in the U.S., but it’s interesting to note that this marks one of her first pseudo-comedic roles in quite some time (The last one being in 2005’s “Mrs Henderson Presents”). Maybe that’s why I liked it so much, but she certainly caught me off guard in this role as Philomena Lee and one that made me forget I was watching Judi Dench. That’s big and why the 79-year-old has an opportunity to take that Oscar home a second time in her career. I just doubt she will given what Cate Blanchett did in “Blue Jasmine.” But, don’t tell her fellow co-star Steve Googan that, who according to an EW article, had to convince his co-writer she was right for this role. “Stop thinking of her as M from the ‘James Bond’ films. She’s not just this refined English older lady. She is a character actor and one of the best out there.” Nice words from her co-star who developed some nice chemistry with the veteran, allowing you to see this story through their eyes, which was nice. Nothing too spectacular, just quality acting around a script that is funnier than you would think.
Out of just four nominations, I’m sure the one you think I would have least been surprised about is Music. But, seeing this film nominated for Best Original Score was unexpected. Maybe I was too focused on the story, but I don’t even remember the music in this film. If anything, it was just background music; nothing too major to report and certainly nothing to be nominated. But, here we are making me want to go listen to the soundtrack so I can maybe understand the nomination better. Granted, we have seen far worse nominated from this category; like in 2006 when “Babel” won. To this day, I will never understand how a score that makes you want to rip your ears out can win an Oscar, but it did. And then in 2009 when “Up” won over fellow and better nominees like “Avatar” and “Sherlock Holmes.” Maybe I’m crazy, but it never made any sense to me how a kids flick could walk home with an Oscar for Best Original Score. So, you just never know from this category, which is why I almost predict I will get this one wrong when that envelope is read that night despite my push for “Her” in this category.
CLICK HERE to read my original, uncut review on “Philomena”
CLICK HERE to find out which Oscar contenders are playing at a box office near you