Is Judi Dench in 'Philomena' the Weinsteins' secret weapon?

Posted by · 9:00 am · July 12th, 2013

Looking ahead to the upcoming awards season, pundits are spoiled for choice when it comes to predicting the Weinstein Company’s annual prize pony. But while obviously baity titles like “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (which just unveiled a teaser trailer today) and “August: Osage County” dominate that particular conversation — along with established festival hit “Fruitvale Station” — Stephen Frears’s “Philomena” is quietly waiting to pounce, most likely at the fall festival season.

On the face of it, this smallish British character piece — described in the publicity as a “bittersweet comedy” — might strike some as a surer bet for acting award consideration than anything else. (Two-time Oscar nominee Frears, after all, has been off the boil lately with such misfires as “Lay the Favorite” and “Tamara Drewe.”) But a closer look at the project suggests the kind of story that could hit the Academy’s emotional sweet spot, just as a film like “Secrets and Lies” did back in 1996. Based on a true story, it stars Judi Dench as an Irish woman searching for the illegitimate son she gave up for adoption decades before when she forced into a convent. Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope, also stars.

The film was at the center of a fierce bidding war at Cannes, where a seven-minute preview was screened to buyers: the ever-savvy Weinsteins ended up beating Focus Features, among others, to the punch. And positive advance word on the film has been circulating since before Cannes — particularly with regard to Dench’s performance.

The last time Dench and Frears collaborated, on 2005’s “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” the veteran actress was arguably lucky to score her an Oscar nod for the lightweight comedy; those I know who’ve seen the film say she presents a more substantial case for the award this time. Dench was a late bloomer with the Academy, scoring her first nomination in her mid-sixties and proceeding to rack up six in the space of a decade — but she hasn’t caught the voters’ collective eye since “Notes on a Scandal” seven years ago.

I would guess that the film will make its premiere at the upcoming Venice Film Festival. That, after all, is where Frears unveiled “The Queen” in 2006, with Helen Mirren winning the festival’s Best Actress award — and we all remember what happened from there. (As does Dench, one of the actresses left eating Mirren’s dust that year.) Could “Philomena” follow a similar path? The film’s first official still landed today — it’s nothing to set the world alight, but I expect a trailer will follow soon.

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