Venice vaults ‘Philomena’ star Judi Dench into Oscars frontrunner

Six years ago, Stephen Frears debuted “The Queen” at the Venice film festival and Helen Mirren picked up the first of her many prizes that culminated with the Oscar for playing Elizabeth II. This year, the director has returned to the lido with another true story — “Philomena” — and early signs are that this film’s star, Judi Dench, might need to make room on her mantle for a bookend to the Oscar she won in 1998 for playing Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love.”

As an Irishwoman searching for the son she was forced to give up for adoption half a century ago, Dench received rave reviews and is likely to reap her seventh Oscar nomination. She sits in second on our Best Actress chart, behind Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”). Dench’s last Oscar bid was for her role opposite Blanchett in 2006’s “Notes on a Scandal” when she lost Best Actress to Mirren. 

Steve Coogan, best known for playing TV’s Alan Patridge, adapted journalist Martin Sixsmith‘s bestseller that details his quest with Philomena Lee and plays him in the film. While the supporting actor race is crowded with better-known names, Coogan can count on the Weinstein Co. to tout his work both in front of and behind the camera. 

If the film plays as well in Toronto as it did in Venice, it could also contend for Best Picture and Director as “The Queen” did in 2006. Below, a sample of the praise for the picture so far. 

Deborah Young, The Hollywood Reporter: At this point it’s all about veterans Dench and Coogan, who make a delicious, if a tad too predictable, duet, milking the British class system for non-stop humor that they seem able to turn on and off like a faucet. Considering the Coogan co-wrote his own witty dialogue, he certainly gave himself a lot of good lines. Dench puts her “Skyfall” sophistication behind her but not her dignity in the title role. Martin’s supercilious affectation and Oxford ways contrast smartly with Phil’s homey wisdom and, for instance, her endearing affection for tawdry romantic fiction and her non-familiarity with international travel. It’s remarkable these two fine actors pull it off without recourse to sentimentality. 

Matt Mueller, Indiewire: While she can be terribly funny, Dench is also supremely moving in her role. There’s a scene early on where Sixsmith and Philomena first visit the Roscrea convent to see what news they can find, and the jovial mother superior tells them about the fire that destroyed the records. In a moment of staggering human intimacy, the actress looks down at her lap like she might just fold up and perish right there from the heartbreak. Dench takes your breath away, and so does “Philomena”.

Nancy Tartaglione, Deadline: It screened to laughs, tears and lots of applause – the latter both during and after the film. Following a series of intensely serious movies – some of which, like Gravity, have been very well-received – festgoers were still looking for a genuine crowd-pleaser. Although “Philomena” treats a very delicate subject matter, which resulted in the pulling out of a lot of hankies in the Sala Darsena, it’s also a very funny and heart-warming film. 

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