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‘Philomena’: Mother’s quest sincere, not sappy, thanks to Judi Dench

‘PHILOMENA’

★★★1⁄2

Philomena Lee Judi Dench

Martin Sixsmith Steve Coogan

The Weinstein Co. presents a film directed by Stephen Frears and written by Coogan and Jeff Pope, based on Martin Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” Running time: 95 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references). Opens Wednesday at local theaters.

Updated: November 26, 2013 8:56PM



Dame Judi Dench is one of a handful of contemporary screen stars who leads people to say, “If she was only reading the phone book, I’d go see her.” Fortunately, in “Philomena,” the consummate actress has much richer material to chew on.

An added bonus: The screenplay is co-written by Dench’s co-star, Steve Coogan. But more on that, and him, in a moment.

The movie is inspired by the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who kept a secret for 50 years. After becoming pregnant, a teenage Philomena was exiled to a convent by her horrified, very Catholic parents. There, the nuns deliver her baby son and force her to give up all parental rights — allowing her to see the boy one hour a week, when she’s not working long hours in the laundry at the convent’s orphanage. In the early 1950s, her 3-year-old son was adopted by well-to-do Americans, cutting off Philomena’s hope of ever seeing him again.

Later, British journalist Martin Sixsmith became Lee’s partner in the journey to find her son and wrote a book about the experience. Coogan then began his own journey to turn Philomena Lee’s story into a motion picture.

Best known for his comedic roles — such as the madcap director in “Tropic Thunder” and the miniature Octavius in the “Night at the Museum” films — Coogan cast himself as Sixsmith in “Philomena.” It was a calculated but wise decision, as it lets us see this talented Brit deliver a nicely nuanced dramatic performance, laced with some funny moments.

Sixsmith and Philomena are the year’s best odd couple. The writing provides delicious moments in the film as the cynical, worldly Sixsmith initially condescends to Dench’s Philomena — whom he first views as a little old Irish lady he is profiling for a “human interest” story in a London tabloid. His disdain for Philomena’s love of romance novels and a popular chain restaurant are made all the more hilarious in the movie, as Philomena is blissfully unaware of Sixsmith’s snobbery. No wait! She gets it! She outsmarts him by disguising it under a cover of what he thinks is lower-middle-class cluelessness.

In the film (and real life), Sixsmith is a highly educated, highly esteemed journalist who has fallen on hard times after an unspecified scandal ended his job as an official British government spokesman. In an intriguing way, Philomena needs Martin and he needs her, and that mutual dependence and all it reveals are central to what makes this movie so appealing.

We know Dench for “playing smart,” whether it be “M” in the James Bond movies or her Oscar-winning role as Queen Elizabeth I or even as Evelyn Greenslade in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Here she is given a more difficult challenge: to deliver a believable performance as a down-to-earth, religious, somewhat naïve woman who wants to discover the fate of the son she never saw grow up. Not surprisingly, this gifted actress achieves it — and in the process gives us one of the most touching and poignant performances of the year.

Coogan, too, is a revelation, hitting just the right notes and subtly revealing how this intellectual comes to understand, revere and, most important, respect all that Philomena represents.

The journey Sixsmith and Philomena tackled is very much a matter of public record, but I hope audiences will go see this film without Googling the backstory. The experience of going along with Dench and Coogan as they re-create this true tale will be enhanced if you don’t know how Philomena’s life has ultimately played itself out.

Director Steven Frears deserves special mention. A lesser filmmaker could so easily have turned this project into mushy, sentimental junk. The tear-jerking moments here are heartfelt and real. It’s the kind of filmmaking we see too little of today.

Email: bzwecker@suntimes.com

Twitter: @billzwecker



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