Philomena

Since the Oscar nominations were announced last month, gold-derby prognosticators have referred to Philomena as “the ninth nominee” in the Best Picture field. Their implication is that among all those films up for Hollywood’s highest honor, the British dramedy is the one least likely to win and least deserving of being there.

That’s insane, of course, because in a lineup of science-fiction premises and sexual dynamos, Philomena looks most like what the Academy considers Best Picture material. Your honor, I enter into record the following evidence:

• It stars Dame Judi Dench.

• She cries.

• Two-time nominee Stephen Frears (The Queen) directs.

• Harvey Weinstein distributes.

• Old people have flocked to it.

• It’s also really good.

Incorrectly referred to as Philomania by no less than the Wolf of Wall Street himself, Leonardo DiCaprio, at the recent Golden Globes, Philomena screens
Friday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art as part of the
venue’s annual Oscar Tune-Up showcase of pictures you should see
before the big night. Best Picture aside, the film is up for lead
actress, adapted screenplay and musical score. If Philomena wins any Academy Award on March 2 — and I do not expect it to — it will be for the latter.

However,
do not take that as any kind of knock against it; the movie offers more
pleasures than a glance at its generic poster suggests.

It’s
even subversive, which should not come as a surprise to those familiar
with Steve Coogan’s work on his side of the pond. Known in the United
States primarily for his work with Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder and both Night at the Museum outings,
the UK comedian not only stars opposite Dench (Skyfall), but produced
and co-wrote, thus infusing a welcome balance of acidic skepticism to
the gentle sentiment. Without his input, the based-on-fact tale
certainly would be presented as maudlin manipulation bearing
Hallmark-card depth.

Dench’s
Philomena Lee was raised in a convent as a pregnant teenager and, in life’s twilight, feels compelled
to locate the son she was forced to give up in her Catholic convent
days. Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who reluctantly
agrees to help, if only because his recently besmirched reputation has
left him otherwise unemployable at the moment. To tell any more of their
journey risks spoiling the film’s twist — two of them, actually, one of
which may cause half the audience’s heads to explode, assuming their
unfamiliarity with the true story.

Rather
cannily, as a result, Frears gets to have his teacakes and eat them,
too. As Coogan and co-scribe Jeff Pope have written it, the dramatic
climax allows Ms. Lee to retain her sense of dignity and kindness,
despite having been wronged, and then allows Sixsmith to do what the
viewers wish she would have: Rip their antagonist a well-earned new one.

Philomena may not push the technical envelope as Gravity does or compress a complex chapter of history into a wild ride à la American Hustle, but it does feature two very fine lead performances, in what would
seem like a thespian mismatch, yielding honest laughs and honest
emotions. These days, that’s enough.

Rod Lott

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