One of the big surprises in the Best Picture category on Oscar nominations morning was the inclusion of Philomena. Despite the power of Harvey Weinstein very few thought he could get this film in when he already had a film filled with acting superpowers (August: Osage County) and a film focusing on a timely matter (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) on his docket. Yet after the former disappointed with critics and the latter disappointed at the box office, Philomena was allowed to sneak its way into the Best Picture field. Upon seeing the film, it is easy to see why it was able to do so. With a well-written script, an interesting subject matter, and two strong performances, Philomena is easily the best of the 2013 Weinstein Company films (which also included Fruitvale Station and The Butler).
Philomena covers the true story of disgraced and unemployed journalist Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan) as he decides to use his free time to help Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench) find her long lost son. The film is directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen) and is written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (a prominent TV writer in England).
It’s quite amazing that this film works at all as Philomena touches upon a lot of subject matter that does not work in film if not handled well. The HIV crisis in America, the gay community in America and the corrupt nature of the Catholic Church all become major plot points in this film. Yet the film never becomes boggled down in these issues, and can be a lot of fun at times. A lot of the credit for this has to go to Coogan and Pope’s script, which really drives the momentum of this film. It knows exactly when to include a moment of quietness or when to get the waterworks going for the audience, and yet it still finds time for witty dialogue and funny jokes. Stephen Frears does a decent job at the helm, but his greatest accomplishment is that he lets the script take center stage.
The only performances that leave an impact in this film are luckily the two performances that the film hinges on. Judi Dench gives one of her best performances in a long time. The one weak point in the script is that it has the tendency to treat Philomena Lee as a caricature at times (especially when it comes to the fact that she is old), but Dench adds so much nuance that she never feels like one. Dench is also able to handle the constant transitions from comedy to seriousness quite deftly. Meanwhile, Steve Coogan might give his best performance ever. Most American audiences know Coogan as that British comedian, so it is a nice change of pace to see Coogan play a more serious role. The comedic timing is still there in spades, but Coogan also does quite well at balancing dramatic moments as well as finding a way to make a very flawed character sympathetic.
Philomena ultimately comes across as small, but there is a lot to like within it.