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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Buddy Beaverhausen Catches Up with Oscars' Best Picture Nominees # 4: Philomena

Based on Martin Sixsmith's book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Stephen Frears' Philomena is based, however creatively for dramatic purposes, upon real life events. The director of The Queen and My Beautiful Laundrette, among other features, has a firm hold on the wheel of this road movie that details the inner journey of a woman seeking her son, forcefully removed from her when he was a child, and her travel companion, a jaded politician and BBC journalist trying to write an investigative "human interest" piece.

The film, nominated for four Oscars come March 2, including Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Original Score and Best Adapted Screenplay, is winsome yet frequently heartrending. Like the characters on their road trip, the mastery of Philomena's storyline is that we never know where it is taking us. It is full of mystery (all of which is resolved by it's climax, I am happy to report) like, say, what is Jane Russell's framed, autographed publicity shot doing on a convent wall in Ireland?

The screenplay was co-written by Stephen Coogan who also produced and co-stars with Judy Dench. Resonant with the idea that youthful trauma can last a lifetime, the film goes full circle from an Irish convent to Washington DC back to the convent before its resolution, when all the puzzle pieces come together.

Coogan underplays his role as Martin Sixsmith, allowing Judi Dench's radiant Philomena center stage. The always first-rate Ms Dench imbues her character with such a deftly played spectrum of emotions, from the most bitter heartbreak to the blithely comic, it is a crowning achievement to her long, distinguished career. Oh, for God's sake, just hand the woman her Oscar now! She has been Academy Award-nominated a total of seven times and won once, in 1999, for Shakespeare In Love.

The supporting cast is exceptional (no shortage of good acting at the cinema these days). You may be surprised to see Mare Winningham (St. Elmo's Fire) in a key role. England's Barbara Jefford makes a grand villain of this piece as the bitter, cruel, elderly Sister Hildegarde.

While the Weinstein Corporation's marketing of Philomena may lead one to expect something fluffier, the film is, in fact, quite an emotional journey for its audience. In counterpoint to my recent experience watching Saving Mr Banks, Philomena moved me to tears and laughter yet I never felt manipulated as the feelings seemed very organic to the development of the story and its characters.

Growing up Catholic in an Irish-American family during the time period covered by this film, I confess there were a lot of personal chords struck as I watched Philomena.

My favorite dialogue was when Sister Hildegarde says to Martin Sixsmith, "The Lord Jesus Christ will be my judge; not the likes of you!" To which Stephen Coogan as Sixsmith replies, "Really? Because I think if Jesus was here right now, he'd tip you out of that fucking wheelchair! And you wouldn't get up and walk."

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