Judi Dench, effortlessly affecting and endearing as Philomena

by Mark Burger

For 50 years, Philomena Lee wondered about the illegitimate son she was forced to give up for adoption by the sisters of the Irish convent where she lived as a girl. Eventually, she turned to Martin Sixsmith, a burned-out political correspondent with a career on the skids, for his advice.

This unlikely duo, chronicled in Sixsmith’s best-selling book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, embarked on an odyssey in which neither could have foretold the outcome — a journey of discovery and self-discovery, and one that brought to light a once-common practice of adoption considered by some to be immoral, if not illegal.

The film version Philomena is not without its overly sentimental moments, but it’s balanced by genuine emotion and everpresent humor, making the journey all the more agreeable. Having Judi Dench play Philomena and Steve Coogan play Martin makes the journey a delight.

As Philomena and Martin travel two continents in search of the lost Anthony, both are compelled to reflect on their respective pasts. Despite the hardships of her youth, Philomena remains a devout Catholic. Martin, very much the lapsed Catholic, is both amused and aggravated by her adherence to religion, resulting in some lively discussions between the two.

Coogan, who co-wrote the script and produced, can be outrageously funny and certainly has his share of humorous moments here, yet also offers a glimpse into his considerable dramatic capabilities. In acting terms, Philomena yields a best-case scenario: The actors bring out the best in each other.

It’s not surprising, given that the film is directed by reliable Stephen Frears, who has a knack for bringing out the best in his actors, regardless of circumstance or outcome: Oscar winner Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006), Oscar nominees Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening in The Grifters (1990), Oscar nominees Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons (1988), and on.

In smaller roles, Mare Winningham, Anna Maxwell Martin and Sophie Kennedy Clark (as young Philomena) perform ably, and veteran British actress Barbara Jefford is first-rate as Sister Hildegarde, the nun you love to hate. (Rest assured, Martin does… but Philomena won’t.)

Dench, who seems to amass Oscar nominations at will, is a likely contender for her work here. With those emotionfilled, pain-etched close-ups, one can hear audiences reach for their Kleenex and Academy voters reach for their ballots. Then again, she’s not a Dame for nothing — she’s a grand Dame.

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. Copyright 2013, Mark Burger

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