Philomena is this year’s most surprising award season contender. Yes it has the benefit of being a true story and featuring an all star cast including Judi Dench, one of the best actresses working in the business. Yet, no one thought there would be enough room for it. However, as Philomena began to accumulate awards that led it to its eventual Best Picture nomination, interest in the little British film began to grow, and critics where able to recognize one of the year’s best films. Philomena, like its central character, is reserved, charming, witty, and ultimately heartwarming.
The credit to Philomena definitely goes to writer/ star Steve Coogan. While the story of Philomena could have been many things, including a pessimistic drama, a nail-biting thriller, or an unbearably miserable Oscar bait film. However, Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope have chosen to create a charming story of a woman trying to reconnect with her past and a man trying to find his place. In the end, it’s an odd couple relationship. However, Philomena definitely does not shy away from drama. The first thirty minutes have some pretty serious drama that sets the film up, but from then on the comedy and drama is well mixed and the relationship between Coogan and Dench is spectacular.
This brings us to Judi Dench, who delivers the best leading female performance of the year. What Dench has that is now a rarity in Hollywood is a subtlety; whether it’s the complexities of an Irish woman that she inhabits or the confliction of her youthful actions, Dench never feels the need to overact or create a scene. Instead, she recreates a character in full fashion. The fact that Dench is more interested in being true to a story instead of dramatizing the film’s events is why Philomena succeeds.
Steve Coogan himself also manages to deliver the best performance of his career. While Coogan’s character could have been easily just been in the film to play off Dench, Coogan wrote a fully interesting and complex character that has his own personal journey and learns a lot from Dench on their journey together. The back and forth between Coogan and Dench is fantastic as his pessimism and her optimism clash and the characters end up rubbing off on each other.
Despite being advertised as a comedy of sorts, make no mistake: Philomena is often dark and sometimes disturbing. While the comedy certainly helps the film and makes it more engaging, there are nevertheless some darker moments, which are mainly focused in the flashbacks in the beginning and the film’s conclusion. While the conclusion was absolutely necessary for the film, the flashbacks would have been better suited if they had been divided and spaced throughout the film instead of constricted to one huge flashback at the beginning. After the flashback ends the film seems to have its heavy lifting done, but the divided flashbacks would have ultimately helped the film.
Philomena is a beautiful film with some terrific acting and writing that manages to tell a dark tale with some great comedy involved. While many unfortunately missed out on Philomena the first time, it is definitely one of the year’s best films. Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are at their best, and Coogan’s screenplay makes the film even better. Philomena is a great film that tells a dark story with a hopeful twist. Grade: A