24 December, 2013

A bounty of Oscar bait in Savannah— "The Book Thief" (***½), "Philomena" (****), "The Invisible Woman" (****)

Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nélisse star in "The Book Thief"
"The Book Thief," director Brian Percival's first film as a director since his success with television's "Downton Abbey," carries the same crisp and clean aplomb as his overwhelmingly successful TV series. Anchored by a tremendous young talent in Sophie Nélisse, "The Book Thief" is based on a novel by Markus Zusak about a young girl and her foster parents in World War II Germany as they hide a Jewish friend in their home. Although some of the film's most beautiful moments occur while the film's mysterious narrator—Death—reveals his perspective, there is a disconnect between the film's overall sweet tone and the narration. While not completely saccharine, there isn't much of an edge to be found for a story of such high risk and devastation, making the film feel more like an adaptation of a young adult novel at times. Production values are exceptional, as are performances from Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer and Nico Liersch. John Williams' beautiful-as-always score is a sure bet for an Oscar nomination, though that remains the film's best bet. "The Book Thief" has enjoyed decent success at the box office in the past few weeks, and will continue to find an appreciative audience for this well-made and affecting film. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

"Philomena" and "The Invisible Woman" after the jump.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in "Philomena"
"Philomena," as it's singular character title would suggest, is all about one woman—Judi Dench. Not to detract from the film's other strong points—namely Steve Coogan's performance and Steve Coogan's screenplay (co-written with Jeff Pope)—but this film is primarily a vehicle for Dench's tested and certified talent. While it isn't often that a 79-year-old actress finds herself at the peak of her career, Dench has been at the top of her game for the last decade or so, thanks to strong box office receipts from her films in the James Bond franchise and her starring roles in films like "Mrs. Henderson Presents," "Notes on a Scandal" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." Few actresses could capture Philomena with the same delicacy as Dench, portraying a woman with such abounding grace after suffering through half-a-century of despair, heartache and uncertainty. Dench capriciously walks a high tightrope without the safety net of an ensemble surrounding her—again, not discounting Coogan's performance as down-and-out journalist Martin Sixsmith. "Philomena"—and Dench in particular—is funnier than you expect it to be and the flashback scenes of young Philomena (played with a crystal-clear sincerity by Sophie Kennedy Clark) are more poignant than you expect. The mood of Robbie Ryan's photography flows evenly with the film, making the most of Martin and Philomena's transcontinental journey and Philomena's early days at the convent. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Alexandre Desplat's disappointing score-by-numbers—an obviously phoned-in attempt from the otherwise hardworking and creative composer. 4 out of 5 stars.

Felicity Jones stars in "The Invisible Woman"
"The Invisible Woman" marks Ralph Fiennes second time serving as both actor and director, following his 2011 Shakespeare adaptation, "Coriolanus." This time, Fiennes plays second fiddle—as the title might suggest—to Felicity Jones. Based on Claire Tomalin's book about Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and his long-time secret mistress, Nelly (Jones), the film works on several levels. Jones makes the most of her leading role and bests her performance in "Like Crazy," showcasing 'tortured-by-love' in all of its varied stages—early lovesickness, forbidden romance, shameful secrecy and haunting memories. Fiennes is always great, and this marks no departure, but I'm most impressed by his role as director here. Kristin Scott Thomas and Tom Hollander fill their roles well, but it is Joanna Scanlan as Dickens' long-suffering and loyal wife that puts forth the film's most valuable asset. If only Sony Pictures Classics' focus was placed on the right awards campaigns, Scanlan could very well wind up with an Oscar nomination. Fortunately, the film is a shoo-in for an Oscar nod for costume design and should warrant plenty of consideration for its detailed production design and the tempestuous strings of Ilan Eshkeri's score. 4 out of 5 stars.

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