Philomena Spoiler Warnings — proceed at your own risk: In yesterday’s “Feinberg vs. Bejo” piece, I noted that three of Scott Feinberg’s top ranked Best Actress contenders are on the soft side in terms of (a) having been given a really good role to work with and (b) really delivering the goods,” and that one of these is Philomena‘s Judi Dench. I characterized her performance as “spirited older lady behavior and dialogue — nothing that stupendous.”
A film critic colleague responded last night as follows: “I have to say I think you’re dead wrong [about Dench in Philomena]. For me, it’s maybe the greatest performance of her career, and I’d be shocked if she isn’t nominated. The Academy has nominated (heck, even awarded her) for much lesser work.”
Wells: “What Dench is doing in this film is boilerplate ‘older uneducated lady from the provinces’ schtick.”
Film Critic Colleague: “I completely disagree. It seems that way on the surface, but then you see that while she may lack conventional book smarts, she’s nobody’s fool, a very savvy reader of people, and a true believer despite what the Church has wrought upon her. All of which makes the character complex and interesting in unexpected ways. And Dench gets so deep under the skin of the part that I almost didn’t even recognize her. She’s totally stripped of her usual aristocratic airs and sardonic wit, and no matter how familiar she is as a screen presence, you almost immediately buy her as this ordinary British mum from the hinterlands. I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one, but don’t underestimate how far that movie is going to go with Harvey pushing, plus the Academy’s love for Dench (who managed to get a nomination for Mrs. Henderson Presents for God’s sake). I also wouldn’t rule out Steve Coogan‘s screenplay getting a nomination. All around, I thought it was Frears’ best film in many, many years, certainly since The Queen, but maybe since The Grifters.”
Wells: “When Philomena forgave the church at the end and lectured Steve Coogan‘s Martin Sixsmith about how it must be exhausting to be angry at people and institutions, she lost me. I shut down. The lady is an idiot for offering forgiveness to the Catholics. An idiot and a fool. Thank God for the people in history who have exhausted themselves in their anger against hateful ideologues and institutions that destroy families.”
Here’s how I put it in my Toronto Film Festival review:
“The second [problematic] bit happens at the end when Coogan’s Sixsmith righteously tells off the convent staffers and particularly the old crone who officiated over the selling of Philomena’s boy in the mid ’50s. In response Philomena, a kindly, faintly ditzy, less-than-sophisticated sort, shakes her head at Sixsmith’s judgmental manner (‘It must be exhausting to be that angry,’ she says) and offers forgiveness to the nuns who ordered the crime against she and her son.
“Coogan/Sixsmith is speaking blunt truth to power and he’s the bad guy? The nuns of the convent in Rosecrea did an absolutely hateful and fiendish thing and Dench, whose connection to her son was completely and forever severed because of these despicable penguins, forgives them? For what reason? How does it brighten the world or make it a kinder place to give these monsters a pass?
“I was so enraged at this forgiveness scene that I decided that Philomena was a lesser film for it. Dench giving the nuns a pass gives ‘forgiveness’ a really bad name. Thank God that people made of sterner stuff have stood up and told off and rebelled against the fiendish in similar moments of the past. Think of where we’d be if people of Dench’s mettle had prevailed and/or set the tone over the centuries when moral crimes and atrocities have been revealed. May the saints protect us from kindliness and turning the other cheek and ‘live and let live,’ and particularly blind loyalty to the Catholic Church.”