Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in 'Philomena'
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in 'Philomena'

Every year Harvey Weinstein throws his best stuff against the wall to see what sticks. And the last three years have been amazing: "The King's Speech," "The Artist" and "Silver Linings Playbook" all won big at the Oscars. This year it looked like Weinstein had quite a few quivers in his bow: but "Grace of Monaco" got pushed back, "The Butler" and "August: Osage County" may eke out some acting noms at best, and despite well-reviewed performances by Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, "Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom" may have been superseded by extensive global news coverage after the death of the South African hero.

The stealth candidate leading the Weinstein pack --with strong box office and reviews (92% fresh) and most awards attention so far-- is Stephen Frears' "Philomena," which this week earned a SAG nomination for Judi Dench, three Golden Globes nominations, not only for Best Drama and Dench as Best Actress but for Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope's screenplay, which was also nominated for the Critics Choice Awards, along with Dench.

The engine driving this train is writer-producer-star Coogan, who delivers an unexpectedly deep dive into the true story of Philomena (a pitch-perfect Dench), a bereft mother searching for her long-lost son, and the human-interest feature writer Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) who helps her to track him down. As the narrative unfolds we learn that Philomena hangs on to her religion and faith, despite the horrors brought on her by the Catholic Church that kept her for years in indentured servitude for getting pregnant out of wedlock and sold her young child to the highest bidder. The debate between her and Sixsmith, who is consumed with anger at what the Church did to her, gives this drama its spine. 

As a Brit comedy actor, audiences have a sense of Coogan from the roles he plays--he tends to be cynical, acerbic, a bit of an asshole. This passion project marks a turn for him, as he not only wrote the dialogue for Sixsmith but for "Philomena, who argues with me," he says in a telephone interview. "I'm arguing against myself in the film. This film is what I wanted to do, it was important to do. I decided that this is the story I want to tell, like a dog with a bone. I want to get it done, and do it properly."

He didn't want to do yet another Magdalene Sisters film: that had already been done. "It has to be something more, it had to reach out and have an element that was conciliatory, of reconciliation," he says. "There are a lot of good films that are disturbing but don't make you feel good, but they are good films. And there are powerful films that don't necessarily make you feel positive, nor should all films do that. But I wanted to make a film that did make people feel positive, in real way, not in a manipulatively Hollywood way, without false moments."

But doesn't director Stephen Frears manipulate the audience with shots of Dench staring longingly at the place where her son was packed into a car and driven away never to be seen again?