Oscar Beat TIFF 2013: PHILOMENA Launches Judi Dench into Best Actress Race; Hugh Jackman Shines in PRISONERS

     September 9, 2013


As the first weekend of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival heads toward a close, we’ve already seen a number of serious Oscar contenders emerge.  While 12 Years a Slave and Gravity will certainly be heavy hitters in a number of categories, there are a couple of other TIFF films that could nab just one or two nods comes Oscar time.  Judi Dench’s wonderful turn in the pleasantly surprising drama Philomena may very well put her back in the Best Actress race, and Hugh Jackman’s strong performance in the taut thriller Prisoners has a slight possibility of landing him a second Best Actor nomination.

Hit the jump for my rundown of the Oscar prospects of Philomena and Prisoners in this special TIFF edition of Oscar Beat.

philomena-judi-dench-steve-cooganDirector Stephen Frears delivers his best film in years with the touching, if a tad obvious, Philomena.  Based on a true story, Judi Dench stars as an Irish woman who goes searching for her illegitimate son, whom she was forced to give up for adoption while living in a Catholic community.  Steve Coogan, who co-wrote and produced the film, plays a BBC reporter who reluctantly agrees to help her in her search with an eye towards crafting a dreaded “human interest” story about the ordeal.

What could easily have delved into Movie of the Week territory actually turns out to be a genuinely touching and compelling story, deftly told by a restrained Frears, who is aided by a strong script and wonderful chemistry between Dench and Coogan.  The pic is a tad manipulative at times and follows a well-worn character path with regards to Coogan’s character, but it never rings false.  The interplay between Coogan and Dench makes the film, as their rapport can swing from funny to patronizing to standoffish in a matter of seconds.  You can read my full review right here.

The film itself might too small to break into the Best Picture race, but I wouldn’t at all be shocked if Dench received a seventh Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the titular Philomena Lee.  Dench delivers a delicate performance of a woman torn between her faith and duty to the Catholic church and the atrocious way in which she and other young women were treated—the nuance with which Dench plays Lee is impressive.

With The Weinstein Company backing Philomena I expect a pretty rigorous campaign for the film, though Dench is clearly its best shot at getting into the Oscar race. Coogan and Jeff Pope’s adapted screenplay recently surprised by winning the scripting award at the Venice Film Festival, so it’s an Oscar possibility as well.  As for Coogan’s performance, it’s solid (and refreshing) dramatic work from the actor and he has a couple of standout scenes, but Philomena is really Dench’s story.

prisoners-jake-gyllenhaal-hugh-jackmanAs for Prisoners, director Denis Villenevue makes his studio film debut with an incredibly tense and effective thriller.  The film centers on the events following the apparent abduction of two young girls, daughters of characters played by Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis.  When Jackman’s character feels that the lead detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) isn’t doing enough to find his daughter, he takes matters into his own hands.  Read Matt’s full review here.

Prisoners debuted first at the Telluride Film Festival and picked up some strong notices, but a few pegged the pic as a serious Oscar candidate.  Having seen the film I’m not so sure about it’s prospects in the major categories.  The pic is indeed effective and has a slow burn similar to David Fincher’s Zodiac, but it’s very long and and gets bogged down by plot specifics towards the end.  That being said, it’s clear that Villenevue has an incredibly bright future in smart studio filmmaking, as he imbues what could easily have been a predictable, generic thriller with plenty of character focus and artistic flourishes.

The standout performance in the film belongs to Jackman, and he might be a dark horse candidate for a Best Actor nomination, though I stress the word might.  Prisoners very well may be his best work yet, and he landed his first Best Actor nod last year for Les Miserables.  In addition to having an obvious talent, Jackman is an incredibly likable guy, which certainly doesn’t hurt his chances.  The Best Actor field looks to be especially crowded this year with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey, and Tom Hanks already being pegged as early favorites, so despite delivering a powerful performance, Jackman might miss the cut.

prisoners-hugh-jackmanThe rest of the impressive cast does fine work—especially Gyllenhaal—but it’s Jackman who gets the showy performance.  Overall, the pic seems a tad too studio-esque to land in the Best Picture race.  A tighter cut may have given the film a better chance, but a Best Picture nomination for Prisoners at this point feels like a long shot.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ photography is obviously gorgeous, and he’s responsible for a great deal of the film’s effectiveness.  Deakins has been nominated 10 times and has never won, but he does such regularly phenomenal work that I would not be shocked to see him land a Best Cinematography nod for Prisoners; he brings an enormous amount to the film through his camera work.

Click here to catch up on all of our TIFF coverage thus far, and peruse the rest of the TIFF Oscar Beat articles below:


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