Home Movies Toronto: Judi Dench, Sandra Bullock Jump into Best Actress Race

Cate Blanchett has a little bit of competition this morning for Best Actress. Blanchett has been the front runner all summer for “Blue Jasmine” and she remains very strong. But Sunday at the Toronto Film Festival two previous Oscar winners jumped into the race.

First: Dame Judi Dench stars as “Philomena” in an extremely clever British movie about a woman searching, fifty years later, for the little boy who was stolen from her by evil nuns in an abbey. The nuns were selling children to Americans from their orphanage. Steve Coogan, in a rare restrained piece of acting, plays the journalist who helps Philomena figure out what happened.

The movie is a character study. We’ve already seen Dame Judi running around in James Bond movies. And she won her Oscar for playing Queen Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love.”

Here’s the thing about Judi Dench: like Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Blanchett herself and maybe Viola Davis, she is simply flawless. As Philomena she is captivating. The character is sometimes ambivalent, always apprehensive, and frequently surprising.

In the elegant screenplay, Philomena says while describing a romance novel she’s read, “I didn’t see that coming.” And indeed, the twist in the story is one we don’t see coming either. Dench is so nuanced with the material that she manages to keep the audience on it toes.

The other actress who will be added to the Oscar list in lead is Sandra Bullock. “Gravity” was described from Venice as a masterpiece and it is to this extent– the technical achievement are wondrous. As a 3D breakthrough, “Gravity” is this year’s “Avatar,” albeit with a stronger script.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are basically in a two-hander. Clooney’s role is much smaller however. Bullock is the real story, and her Dr  Ryan Stone is tailor made for her: plucky, resilient, with a sad back story and the will to live. She also looks, frankly, unbelievable. It doesn’t hurt that in real life Bullock is incredibly likable. She conveys it on screen.  We are always rooting for her.

“Gravity” is otherwise a tremendous potential hit on IMAX and for the best 3D screens. It should erase all of Warner Bros.’s financial flops from the past year because it’s short and to the point. It is also reminiscent of the Ray Bradbury short story I mentioned a couple of weeks ago called “Kaleidoscope.” The story has been turned into an excellent short film by Brett Stimely. That film is making the festival rounds, too.

The films are similar in many ways. But the genius of “Gravity” was turning the main character into a woman, and casting Bullock. Those are the masterstrokes here.

PS China will love “Gravity.” I can’t give it away, but the Chinese space program figures importantly.

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