‘Philomena’: A story of desperation and joy | 3 stars

Updated: 2013-11-27T01:28:58Z


Special to The Star

As the title character in “Philomena,” Judi Dench is effortlessly funny and heartbreaking, but her brilliance is hardly news.

The real surprise is co-star and writer Steve Coogan, usually a comic actor, who shows genuine sensitivity in the film’s dramatic moments. Their pairing is as unlikely as that of their characters, but it ends up working just as well.

For two centuries, unwed mothers in Ireland faced the prospect of living in a Magdalen Asylum. They were expected to atone for their “sins” through religious penance and unpaid manual labor, never knowing if or when their children would be sent (or sold) to an adoptive family.

“Philomena,” from director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), tells the true story of one of those women, who spent decades searching for her son.

Philomena Lee is a respectable retired nurse by 2005. She connects with Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a former BBC reporter who has just lost his job with the government. Desperate for a sellable story, Martin agrees to help Philomena find the boy who was taken from her in the 1950s.

Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope (adapting Sixsmith’s book) acknowledge the complicated emotions of adoptees and their birth parents, as well as the shifting attitudes among Irish Catholics. That doesn’t mean “Philomena” avoids criticizing the church, but it does so in a way that is honest without being polemical. No one gets off easy here.

That’s as true of the lead characters as it is of the institutions they’re confronting. Philomena seems rather naïve, and her unfiltered kindness is especially charming in Dench’s hands. This “daft” old lady is much more savvy than anyone realizes, though, and she’s emboldened by Martin’s energy and indignation.

For his part, Martin has a tough shell of sarcastic cynicism, but Philomena breaks through to the compassionate man underneath, and Coogan makes him likable in spite of his often thoughtless behavior.

Their relationship is well illustrated by their discussions about religion — she remains devout in spite of what she has suffered, which the atheist Martin cannot comprehend. Neither of them changes sides, but they come to respect each other, in spite of their sometimes irritating differences.

Frears adds flashbacks and home movie footage to break up the otherwise straightforward story, which has the momentum of a good journalistic effort. There’s something to be said for a director who gets out of his story’s way.

The spotlight shines on the script and characters, and Frears couldn’t have two better collaborators.

This may be the gentlest film ever made about a terrible injustice, one that values forgiveness but makes sure no one will ever forget.

Rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references.

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