(In fact, her only Oscar gold has been in the Supporting Actress category for the seven minutes she spent onscreen as the splendidly caustic Good Queen Bess in Shakespeare In Love—which shows you what a formidable contender she can be!)
Despite a preview trailer that passes it off as sort of a treacly feel-good movie, Stephen Frears' Philomena, is an adroit and fiercely moving drama.
At its heart are the notorious Magdalen Institutions that flourished for nearly three centuries (notably in Ireland), Catholic convents where young women "in trouble" were abandoned by their ashamed families.
|You'd think it was a Doris Day comedy from this twinkly poster|
La Dench is marvelous as Philomena, a retired nurse living in London who's searching for the son she was forced to give up 50 years earlier.
Our entry into her story is cynical Martin Sixsmith (the great Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the script, based on a true story), a recently sacked political journalist forced to accept a freelance human interest story about the "little Irish lady".
But as Martin politely squires her around, he and we are sucked into the profound tragedy and injustice of Philomena's story. (Sophie Kennedy Clark—below—is excellent playing teenage Philomena in flashbacks.)
In return for taking in the young women, the convent received four years of indentured servitude, and while the nuns delivered the unwed mothers' babies, they also sold the resulting children to the highest bidder—which in the postwar 1950s meant Americans.
As they travel to the US on the trail of her lost son, Dench reveals a core of deep feeling, steely resolve, and generosity beneath Philomena's flighty-seeming, romance novel-quoting exterior. What she achieves playing someone less sophisticated than the actress herself, or the characters she usually plays onscreen, is a wonderfully subtle and shaded performance that finds the character's common humanity and strength. It's a lovely thing.
As to my own early predictions, I will happily plug in Dame Judi's name over any of the embattled. Southern-fried viragos in August: Osage County. I haven't even seen it yet, but I've endured the interminable trailer so often, it already sets my teeth on edge.