For the last few years, I’ve made a point of watching all of the Best Picture nominees before the Oscar ceremony. Generally, it means watching movies I would have eventually seen anyway, but just having a little motivation to do it sooner. But it also means that most years I have to put up with some real shit. Glorified tele movie dreck like The Kids Are Alright. And heavy handed message shit, like The Help. That movie hit me over the head so hard and so often with it’s oh so subtle message, I was worried I might have a concussion.
But every now and then, this ritual of watching the Oscar nominees means I see something I never would have watched in a million years otherwise, and more than just being pleasantly surprised, I’m outright shocked with how great it is. This year, that’s exactly what happened with Philomena.
At a fair in 50s Ireland, a pretty teenage girl meets a handsome young man and they get to shaboinking. The only problem is, in 50s Ireland, the shaboinking of teenagers was frowned up. Even more frowned upon, were pregnant, unmarried teenagers. Abandoned by here widower father, the young woman spends the next four years in servitude at local convent where the nuns put the children of these unwed mother up for adoption.
Half a century later, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is an unemployed and somewhat disgraced political spin doctor. At a loose end, he’s intrigued by the story of Philomena, the former teenage shaboinker, now present day 70 year old woman, played by Judy Dench.
Sixmith decides this is the kind of human interest story that could help him get back into the world of journalism, and sets out with Philomna to find her long lost son and document their journey.
If you know absolutely anything about this movie or its story, you’ll know that synopsis is egregiously flippant. But I kind of had to be. The story is so tragic, and the film making so effective, that if you think about it too much later, you’ll just get angry, or sad, or disillusioned all over again.
Having Coogan onboard as a co-screenwriter really shows the importance of comedy in drama. Philomena is a heartbreaking story about serious betrayal and cruelty. But the moments of genuine humor are so important in making a story like this immensely watchable, and in keeping it from becoming too preachy, or too heavy handed.
Coogan even leaves the vast majority of the laughs for Judi Dench. He’s more than just an accomplished comedian and comedic actor, he’s one of the best Britain has produced in recent decades. But as a writer, he knew when to step aside in aid of the story he was telling.
Before seeing this movie, I thought it was this year’s example of pure Oscar bait. Based on a true story, tragic story involving a hugely powerful group taking advantage of the less privileged… An icon co-starring with a comedian in a dramatic role. What I wasn’t expecting was one of the most effective dramas I’ve seen all year. It’s still not my pick for Best Picture (I think I’d have to go with The Wolf of Wall Street or Dallas Buyers Club), but if the very unlikely happened and Philomena won at the Oscars, I wouldn’t think they’d made a huge mistake.