12 Years a Slave vs. Gravity, but maybe American Hustle" talk).
Philomena is based on the true story of an Irish woman, Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), who is trying to locate her long lost son. Impoverished as a youth, and living in an abbey, she was shamed by the nuns for becoming pregnant, and forced to give up her child for adoption. Now journalist Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan), facing something of a career crisis, gets hold of her story and tries to help her in her search.
The screenplay, adapted by Jeff Pope and co-star Steve Coogan, packs a great deal into a tight hour-and-a-half. The emotion and drama of the piece is ever present, but the film finds ample opportunities for light comedy. It also finds room for moral introspection, especially on the subject of religion. Sixsmith, a staunch atheist (as a character; in real life, he apparently labels himself agnostic), is dumbfounded that Philomena has remained devoutly religious in light of all that as happened to her. Or more accurately, as he sees it, after all religious people have done to her. Philomena, for her part, is equally mystified by Sixsmith's attitude. Why should God be tarnished by the actions of people -- people who the faithful ought to find forgiveness for in any event?
And yet it's not as though religion alone has filled up Philomena's life. Her longing for her son, for any possible detail of information about him, no matter how small, is clear. In some scenes, the anguish seems quite acute indeed. And still that's only part of the tale. Perhaps it's spoiling a touch too much to say this, but they do track down Philomena's child in the course of the film, and that too is the springboard into an entirely new, thought-provoking chapter of the story.
Judi Dench, so excellent in so many films, gives one of her career-best performances here. Steve Coogan reveals depth some might not expect beyond his comedic roots. And though there are only perhaps one or two other actors in the film that most people might recognize, it's a truly excellent cast from top to bottom.
Stronger than any of the other Oscar contenders, Philomena gets an A- from me. In fact, it makes my Top 10 of 2013 list, strongly landing at #2. I give it my enthusiastic endorsement.