Will ‘Philomena’ win Judi Dench the Best Actress Oscar?

In 2005, Judi Dench reaped the fifth of her six Oscar nominations for “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” While she lost that race to Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line”), she could win Best Actress this year for “Philomena,” which reunites her with that film’s helmer Stephen Frears. Following its triumphant debut at Venice last week, this low-key charmer based on a true story had an equally enthusiastic response at the Toronto filmfest on Sunday. 

Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irishwoman searching for the son she was forced to give up half a century earlier. Co-writer Steve Coogan costars as journalist Martin Sixsmith who helps her character and tells her tale of woe. 

While the supporting actor race is filled with better-known names, he can count on the Weinstein Co. to tout his work both in front of and behind the camera; he and co-writer Jeff Pope won best script honors at Venice. 

Though melancholy in tone, the film has enough gentle jokes and one-liners that it could contend legitimately in comedy/musical at the Globes should those wily awards strategists at Weinstein want to go that way. 

The last time Dench contended at the Oscars was in 2006 for “Notes on a Scandal”; she lost Best Actress to Helen Mirren for “The Queen,” which was also directed by Frears. This year, one of her strongest competitors is her “Notes” nemesis Cate Blanchett who is currently the frontrunner for Woody Allen‘s “Blue Jasmine.” 

Both women have supporting actress Oscars on their mantles: Dench won in 1998 for playing Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love” while Blanchett prevailed for playing all-time Oscar champ Katharine Hepburn in 2004’s “The Aviator.”

Another Oscar winner in the mix is Kate Winslet (“The Reader”) for her work in Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day.” Like Dench, she too has contended at the Oscars a half dozen times. Both women reaped bids for playing the younger and older versions of writer Iris Murdoch in the 2001 biopic “Iris.” 

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