Quality:★★★½ (out of four)
Director: Stephen Frears
Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Sean Mahon, Peter Hermann, Mare Winningham
Rating: PG-13 for strong language, thematic elements, sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Theaters: Oakview, Aksarben, Majestic
* * *
All some movie fans need to know about “Philomena” is that Judi Dench stars in it. That's enough to sell them.
They won't be disappointed. Dench is terrific as a humble Irish woman who decides after 50 years that she wants to find the illegitimate son who was taken from her in her teens. In fact, she's getting some pretty loud Oscar buzz for this role.
But the movie, inspired by true events, has more to recommend than Dench's peformance. For one, director Stephen Frears has a terrific track record that includes “The Queen,” “Dangerous Liaisons” and “High Fidelity.”
Just as Philomena makes the decision to tell her adult daughter about the son from long ago, Martin (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the script) has been let go as press secretary to a British cabinet secretary, caught between spin doctors and out of a job. He agrees to help Philomena in her search, in exchange for being able to write her story for publication. He's desperate enough for dough to take on what he sees as a demeaning “human interest” story.
The movie becomes a road picture, with occasional flashbacks to Philomena's teen years. Sophie Kennedy Clark is just right visually and emotionally as the younger version of Philomena, whose family abandons her to work in an abbey laundry for some hard-hearted nuns.
In one heartbreaking sequence, she watches through a window as her son, about 2, is taken away by adoptive parents without her even being allowed to say goodbye.
Martin and Philomena begin their search at the abbey. The older nuns are carefully sheltered from the visitors. A polite hostess explains records were lost in a fire, yet she produces the paper Philomena signed relinquishing rights to her child. Martin aggressively challenges everything. Philomena is accepting, forgiving, quite religious and resigned to what she thinks she deserves for her sin.
The movie becomes not only about this emotional search but the contrasting and eventually clashing personalities of Oxford-educated Martin, who is clever, angry and disbelieving, and lower-middle-class Philomena, who tests his patience by reciting the plots of cheap romance novels as the highway miles roll by.
Worse, Martin thinks, is her willingness to believe what people tell her and even to serve as an apologist for the abbey.
The search takes one unexpected turn after another as the two meet the child's adopted sister (Mare Winningham), journey to America hunting down further clues, and finally are brought full circle in their search.
All the while the relationship between Martin and Philomena follows a push-pull story arc of its own as the simple housewife has a few things to teach the sophisticated political journalist.
The movie is leavened with moments of dry humor, as when Philomena often remarks, “Well, I certainly didn't see that one coming.”
But it's the pain in the eyes of both central characters that sticks with you afterward, along with a remarkable story of buried secrets and the motivations behind those who bury them.