Review: 'Philomena'

“But you’re a journalist.”

“I used to be.”

“He’s a Roman Catholic.”

“Well, I used to be…”

Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) is trying to speak for the bona fides of a reluctant Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) at one point in Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” but she fails to address her own tentative state of being: she’s a mother (well, she used to be).

As a young woman pregnant out of wedlock in the 1950s, Philomena (played in flashbacks by Sophie Kennedy Clark) was shipped off to an Irish-Catholic convent and saw her boy, Anthony, sold to wealthy new parents without her consent. For years, she abided by the convent’s agreement not to pursue his whereabouts, but in 2003, a regret-stricken Philomena (Dench) agrees to have Sixsmith’s disgraced journalist document her journey to America in an effort to find out what became of dear Anthony.

Based as it is on the real experiences of Sixsmith and Lee, “Philomena” provides as much an opportunity for recovery by director Frears (“The Grifters,” “The Queen” and most recently “Lay the Favorite”) as it does for Coogan’s Martin, who is initially above the notion of doing a soft human interest story -- a far cry from his former spin doctor duties with the Prime Minister -- before succumbing to the inherently salacious promise of the piece. “Evil nuns,” he eagerly jots down, before assuring a nonplussed Philomena that “evil is good, story-wise.”

Having co-written the film with Jeff Pope, Coogan’s character and screenplay exude an equal cynicism towards the institutions of journalism, politics and religion, and whenever it seems that Frears and friends are making the featherweight odd-couple comedy promised in the ads, a series of well-timed surprises and an undercurrent of longing propel the duo forth on their journey. Don’t get me wrong; there are some lovely and amusing exchanges along the way, with Philomena marveling at the first-class luxuries of renting something called “Big Momma’s House” from the comfort of her hotel room and Martin trying to fathom how every other stranger she meets could possibly be “one in a million.”

That bittersweet balance is itself thoroughly embodied by Dench’s performance. Her Philomena comes to compassion easily, is a bit naive at times (but never senile), and even reveals a fierce determination when the occasion calls for it. Although tickled by the opportunity to finally travel abroad, the septuagenarian is also keenly aware of the role she serves in Martin’s story (and, by extension, his career narrative). Furthermore, she is driven by a deep-seated lament for the child she never knew, matched by a frustration as to the value of any faith that has robbed her life of such joy. All told, it’s a remarkably well-realized turn from one of our greater living actresses, and although it’s hard to see Martin as little more than the usual Coogan type -- sarcastic, self-deprecating, opportunistic -- in comparison, he serves as a much-needed angry, atheistic foil to a woman defined by hope as much as woe.

Frears’ direction, meanwhile, simply serves the story, allowing his leads to discover what they must as they must until reaching a climax which provokes two very valid emotional extremes. At this point, and even before, “Philomena” honors its namesake by valuing potent understatement over potential hysterics.

SCORE: 7.8 / 10