A howl of anti-clerical outrage wrapped in a tea cozy, “Philomena” applies amusing banter and a sheen of good taste to the real-life quest of Philomena Lee, an Irishwoman who spent decades searching for the out-of-wedlock son taken from her by Catholic nuns and sold into adoption overseas. Smoothly tooled as an odd-couple vehicle for Judi Dench in the title role and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the British journalist who brought Lee’s story to international attention, this smug but effective middlebrow crowdpleaser boasts a sharper set of dentures than most films of its type, shrewdly mining its material for laughs and righteous anger as well as tears. With an awards push for Dench likely in the works, the Weinstein Co. should have no trouble positioning director Stephen Frears’ latest as a sleeper success, certain to rouse audiences not put off by its genteel calculation.
In adapting Sixsmith’s 2009 book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope have essentially merged a culture-clash comedy with “The Magdalene Sisters,” Peter Mullan’s searing 2002 drama about the Irish Catholic asylums where thousands of “fallen” women were sent and punished for their sexual promiscuity. The Roscrea convent where Lee gave birth in 1952 appears to have been a marginally less inhumane place, allowing the teenage mother (played in flashbacks by an excellent Sophie Kennedy Clark) to see her son, Anthony, for an hour each day in between back-breaking laundry shifts. But in 1955, the boy was taken away and adopted by a wealthy American family, never to be seen again by his birth mother even though she spent decades searching for him.
In the script’s tidier version of events, Philomena (Dench) doesn’t really begin her search for Anthony until the early 2000s, when she finds an unlikely ally in Martin (Coogan), an ex-BBC correspondent and recently ousted civil servant trying to get back into the journalism game via the mildly humiliating route of writing a human-interest piece. After the nuns at the Roscrea convent prove singularly unhelpful, politely but firmly reminding Philomena that she signed away all claims to the child, she and Martin follow a lead to Washington, D.C., hoping to find Anthony and re-establish contact.
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It’s an undeniable whopper of a yarn and, coming after a string of middling efforts from Frears, easily the director’s most compulsively watchable picture since “The Queen.” It hardly gives away the story’s outcome (by now of course a matter of public knowledge) to note that Martin and Philomena’s journey winds up leading them, after a fashion, back to the Church’s doorstep, setting the stage for an emotionally satisfying confrontation with the institutional forces of judgment, repression and hysteria responsible for exploiting countless mothers and their long-lost children.
Indeed, “Philomena’s” slap in the face of religious authority is stinging enough that it could draw ire from conservative groups and publications that care to take an interest, which should only boost its commercial profile. (Along similar political lines, Martin’s investigation even allows for a not-irrelevant swipe at the Reagan administration’s AIDS policy.) These differences of culture, values and temperament are not incidental to the film’s pleasures; they are in fact its primary narrative engine, grounded in the tension between two improbably matched protagonists. Martin, the cynical, world-weary atheist who rudely questions everyone and everything, could scarcely be more different from Philomena, the sweet-tempered Irish biddy who still clings to her faith in God and humanity.
And while Philomena may monopolize the title, the film, with its slick, mocking tone and faintly condescending aftertaste, is ultimately far more on Martin’s side. Much of the humor here comes at the expense of Philomena’s naivete, excessive grandmotherly kindness and lack of worldly sophistication, and while the character is certainly fair game, after a while it’s hard not to wonder if the writers are simply scoring points off her. Hearing Philomena prattle on and on about the romance novel she can’t put down is genuinely amusing the first time; having her suggest they stay in their hotel and watch “Big Momma’s House” on-demand taxes plausibility and patience.
The patronizing sensibility at work even has a diminishing effect on Dench’s otherwise fine, dignified performance; appearing not very bright remains an obstacle that this fiercely intelligent actress only occasionally surmounts. Nonetheless, she invests this twinkly-eyed paragon of virtue with real warmth and tenderness without overdoing the sentimentality, and she can be surprisingly articulate when she needs to be, often letting Martin know exactly what she thinks of his sour worldview. Dench and the script achieve their finest moments when Philomena, for all her rectitude, expresses a surprisingly open-minded view of sexuality, rooted in her still-fond memories of the teenage fling that led to Anthony’s conception in the first place.
The two leads make decent sparring partners and better allies, and Coogan is especially good whenever Martin’s impatient manner tilts into genuine moral indignation. Ace d.p. Robbie Ryan’s HD lensing brings an attractive polish to the D.C. and London locations, but the film’s real formal coup lies in the flashbacks to 1950s Roscrea, distinctively shot on Super 16 and evoking the grainy look of an earlier era. Alexandre Desplat’s churning score is expectedly overactive.