Great cinema, “Philomena” isn’t. And its credibility suffers when sad material combines with odd-couple dramedy. But boosted by an exquisite lead performance and blessed with a remarkable real-life story, it is a warmhearted, often satisfying and occasionally dazzling film.
Veteran director Stephen Frears combines a bicker-and-bond road tale, a detective story and a social-justice indictment in this adaptation, by co-star Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, of a nonfiction book by Martin Sixsmith.
The tone is gentle, earnest and laced with humor. The story transpires about a decade ago with flashbacks to horror.
Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish Catholic woman who, as a rosy-cheeked teen (Sophie Kennedy Clark) in 1952, met a boy at a carnival and wound up pregnant.
At the convent where her father abandoned her, she gave birth to a son. Citing moral and financial compensation, the nuns forced her to do grueling laundry work for several years without pay.
During that time, her son, Anthony, was hauled away at age 3. The sisters wouldn’t tell her where. She has looked for him ever since.
After 50 years of silence and shame, the now-70ish Philomena spills her secret to her daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), who, in a chance encounter, shares it with the aforementioned Martin Sixsmith (Coogan).
Though he deems human- interest stories beneath him, Martin, a fired Labor Party spin master hoping to return to journalism, needs the work. He hits the road with Philomena to investigate what happened to Anthony.
Their first stop is the abbey in Ireland, where a new generation of nuns, echoing the creepy secretiveness of their predecessors, offer tea but no answers. After learning that the convent sold babies to rich Americans, Martin heads with Philomena to Washington, D.C. A string of discoveries, some tragic and some uplifting, follows.
Not wanting a downer on their hands, the filmmakers consistently offset the sad with the sunny, the latter in the form of jokey bantering. The emotional dishonesty nearly ruins the movie.
The odd-couple squabbling (Martin is Oxford-educated, arrogant and an atheist, while Philomena is cheery, fond of romance novels, and, despite how the Church treated her, loyally Catholic), also comes at the expense of the kinds of conversations real people have.
Martin’s colorfully phrased confrontations with the sinister nuns, though crowd-pleasing, are hard to buy.
But at the same time, Philomena’s journey is by its nature affecting, and Dench, who lifted Frears’ “Mrs. Henderson Presents” over the middling mark, creates a wonderfully complicated, embraceable protagonist — devout, worldly, guilt-ridden, forgiving, pleasure-loving and the kind of person who looks forward to watching “Big Momma’s House” on hotel TV.
Frears lets her act, and Coogan, playing a variation on the arrogant sorts he often portrays, wisely stays low-key.
Frears and company score additional points in the social-issue arena, with their depiction of the church’s horrific Magdalen laundries (though the film pales next to Peter Mullan’s “The Magdalene Sisters”), and when paralleling the church’s views on premarital sex with Ronald Reagan’s administration’s policies on AIDS.
Starring Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sophie Kennedy Clark
Written by Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
Directed by Stephen Frears
Running time 1 hour, 35 minutes