Judi Dench-Steve Coogan-485
Photo by Alex Bailey © 2013 The Weinstein Company.

When a film covers subject material that is highly emotional there is always the chance that the director and actors will overplay their hand and become mawkish. When, in striving to avoid those pitfalls, the filmmakers use humor as a defensive shield, they risk seeming pat or overly calculated. Philomena dodges all of that with a moving story that serves as a perfect vehicle for the incomparable Judi Dench as well as Steve Coogan, the talented comedic actor who also produced and co-wrote the movie.

The central character is a real-life Irish woman named Philomena Lee, who had sex one night fifty years ago, gave birth to a child at a local convent, and watched in horror as the nuns gave her son away. Now, all these years later, she wants to know what happened to her child, hoping against hope that he retained some thoughts of her and his homeland. The convent claims that all records burned in an unfortunate fire, and there is no one still alive who can help. Her unlikely facilitator is a recently sacked government functionary and journalist named Martin Sixsmith who sees this human interest story as a last resort for his foundering career. His cold, condescending attitude gives the film the bite it might otherwise lack, and while there is a chance that some viewers may share his patronizing point of view, it adds an interesting layer to the story, along with a few chuckles.

If you haven’t read the book about this real-life incident, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, or read interviews with Lee, the film will hold a fair number of surprises. They will likely inspire frustration, outrage, and tears, all of them well justified. Director Stephen Frears maintains admirable restraint (matched by Alexandre Desplat’s delicate score) in executing Coogan and Jeff Pope’s straightforward screenplay.

But it’s the reactions on Dench’s expressive face that really hit home, as she makes one discovery after another in her search for the son she lost so many years ago. Although Coogan is very good, and Frears does a skillful job bringing this story to life, it’s Dench who makes Philomena well worth the price of admission.