As we savor Oscar season — and the best films of the year fill theaters — the Reel Dad checks out the nutritional value of the nominees. This week’s pick is Philomena, a nominee for four Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Some years, the race for the Oscar for Best Picture features a surprise entry that quietly sneaks into contention while big-name movies capture the hype.
Philomena is a special film about a mother’s love for the child she lost long ago, with content so touching and an approach so thoughtful to make its listing as a Best Picture nominee well deserved. Congratulations to Oscar voters for finding room in a crowded movie year to honor a quiet film that dares to share such a human story.
As a woman who recalls her younger years with regret, Judi Dench reminds us what a powerful actress she can be when the material inspires her passion. That’s not to say that playing ‘M’ in the James Bond films was movie sleep-walking, but there’s much more to Dench than any franchise film can demand. Not since her riveting work as a teacher in Notes on a Scandal in 2006 has Dench had a role that equals her potential. In Philomena, she makes us believe in the quiet desperation of a mother who simply wants to know if, over the years, the son she lost ever thought of her. She can live with her regrets as long as she knows she may have played a role in his life.
In the mid-1950s in Ireland, Philomena is a teenaged single mother living in a convent where she works long hours and cherishes the moments she gets to spend with her young son. What she doesn’t know, at first, is that the convent offers its children up for adoption without a mother’s consent. Philomena is horrified to see her son taken away by a couple from America who travels overseas to become parents. No matter her devastation, though, she has no voice in this transaction. Philomena merely had the child; the convent resolves her shame by finding the baby a home.
Years later, Philomena still lives the wounds of that moment. She wonders, as any parent would, what happened to her son, who he became, how he lived, if he knew his Irish roots. A former journalist hears her story, arranges a writing assignment, and convinces Philomena to let him describe her journey to explore her son’s life. As they search, they become unlikely adventurers to explore a boy’s life and a mother’s love.
Working with the facts from the real Philomena’s life, screenwriters Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope carefully avoid the histrionic temptations that lesser hands may have followed. As beautifully played by Dench, Philomena is a practical woman who refuses to wallow in sadness. She will not feel like a victim. But a mother’s love runs deep and, no matter how she tries to acknowledge her realities, Dench reveals the wounds that do not easily heal. As parents, we simply need our children to be in our lives.
Director Stephen Frears, of The Queen and Dangerous Liaisons, keeps the film so visually interesting that we never feel trapped by its sentimentality. He wisely focuses his camera on the relationship between Philomena and her traveling journalist as much as on her disappointments. We get to know this woman because Frears doesn’t work too hard to reveal how she thinks and feels. With Dench in command, the director lets us discover what drives this mother’s love. We get to know Philomena and wish we could spend more time with her.
How reassuring that, in the midst of all the Oscar hype, a small film with purpose can grab a slot on the Best Picture ballot. Congratulations.
Film Nutritional Value
* Content: High. The characters are fresh, and the situations compelling, filling the film with real emotion, caring and need.
* Entertainment: High. This retelling of a real story wisely focuses on the relationship between a woman and her unlikely guide to her heart.
* Message: High. While director Stephen Frears could have let the film trap itself in its good intentions, he maintains our interest in this woman’s journey to fulfill her curiosity about her long-lost son.
* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to get to know such an interesting woman, and experience a great actress in such strong form, is meaningful.
* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. We can learn from how the people in the film search for resolution and how they react when they confront challenges.
Philomena is an Oscar nominee for Best Picture, Actress, Adapted Screenplay and Music Score. The film is rated PG-13 for “some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references” and runs 98 minutes.
5 Popcorn Buckets