‘Philomena’ a Crowd-Pleasing Awards Candidate

Recent industry screenings of “Philomena” (which opens in the U.S. today) confirmed what we wrote after the film’s late-August premiere in Venice: It’s a strong awards candidate in all the major categories, an emotional tale handled with taste and intelligence.

There was an overflow crowd for the Weinstein Co. film at the Variety Screening Series Wednesday, with big laughs and big tears from the audience. At a Q&A afterwards, producer-writer-star Steve Coogan, producer Gabrielle Tana, composer Alexandre Desplat and Sophie Kennedy Clark (who plays the teenage Philomena)  talked about the real-life Philomena Lee, and working with director Stephen Frears and star Judi Dench.

Coogan first read about the true-life tale online and then optioned Martin Sixsmith’s book about Philomena Lee’s search for the son she had given up for adoption 50 years earlier. Tana said it was her idea to approach Dench, who liked the idea of playing an ordinary, guilt-ridden woman after portraying so many take-charge and imperious women.

Though Sixsmith’s book was about Lee’s search for her son, Coogan only took about 20% of that and relied more on conversations with Lee and Sixsmith. Though the latter was barely mentioned in the book, Coogan’s idea was to make him a central character, inspired by a photo of him laughing with Lee. Coogan said he wanted to capture that mixture of humor and tragedy, and to make a film about faith and how two people can change each other.

Coogan had the crowd in the palm of his hand with tales of making the film. He had high praise for his colleagues, particularly composer Desplat; while most composers would hammering home the emotions, Desplat offered subtle work that underlined the mixture of comedy and heartbreak in the tale.

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