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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

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