Down to the final three in our alphabetical Best Picture countdown, and here we have “Philomena,” a funny, gentle heart-tugger of a drama from Stephen Frears. Based on a true story, it spans 50 years in the life of Philomena Lee, who as an unmarried teenager gave birth to a baby in 1950s Ireland, and watched miserably as the child was placed for adoption. Decades later, she became determined to search for her child, and “Philomena” is mostly the story of that search. Unexpectedly, it’s something of a road movie, with Judi Dench (as Philomena) and Steve Coogan (as the journalist accompanying her) making an effective odd couple. There are surprises along the way, but “Philomena’s” greatest miracle is its ending, which manages to be both heartbreaking and joyful. (I like every movie in this year’s Best Picture lineup, but if you forced me to name a favorite, this would be it. I haven’t met anyone yet who didn’t love this movie.)
Still in theaters? Yes, at several in the area including Oak Tree, Meridian and Guild; it also returns to the Ark Lodge this weekend.
Total U.S. box office: $32.8 million
Total Oscar nominations: Four, for best picture, actress (Dench), adapted screenplay (Coogan and Jeff Pope), and original score.
Best chance for a win: Best picture is highly unlikely, but there’s opportunity elsewhere. I’m think this will be the adapted screenplay winner: “Philomena” is a movie that screens very well on DVD, and its subject matter will appeal to the many older Academy voters. Dench isn’t favored to win best actress, but consider this — she’s never won this category (her one Oscar, in 1999, was for supporting actress), and, at 79, may not find a role this good again. She could surprise.
Odds of this movie creating some fabulous Oscar-night weirdness: The real Philomena Lee, who’s now 80, has been making numerous apearances in support of the film, and could well turn up on Oscar night — maybe even at the podium, should the movie win an award.
Fun fact: Judi Dench’s affiliation with director Stephen Frears (who really should have been nominated for best director here, but nobody asked me) goes back to 1981, when she appeared in a BBC television film he directed, called “Going Gently.” They have since collaborated three more times, including another Oscar-nominated turn in “Mrs. Henderson Presents.”
Steve Coogan and Philomena Lee, at the Golden Globes earlier this year. (AP photo)