Film review: Philomena - odd-couple pairing plays to their strengths

Dir. Stephen Frears. Starring Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, 98mins (12A)

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The Independent Culture

Reworking Martin Sixsmith's 2009 non-fiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee into a kind of odd-couple comedy, this is a strangely upbeat and feel-good film about institutional abuse and lifelong heartbreak.

But then, the idea that it is unwise to wallow in misery is one of its major themes. Steve Coogan plays the former BBC foreign correspondent Sixsmith, whom we first meet in a doctor's surgery complaining of depression.

Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish Catholic woman who, 50 years previously, had been forced into a convent for unwed mothers and had her child taken away and sold into adoption. Sensing a profitable "human interest" story, the journalist suggests that he accompany Philomena on a mission to America to track down her lost child.

And during the course of their US jaunt, the Oxford-educated Sixsmith will learn from the less worldly but plain-speaking Philomena some lessons in humility, some home-spun wisdom, and the real meaning of "human interest". Yes, it is schematic.

But while the contrast between the journalist's natural moral outrage and the victim's benevolent forgiveness is made rather plain, the film still allows the audience to form its own response.

And while the characters are rather one dimensional – especially, as the film itself describes them, the "evil nuns" – Dench and Coogan are a winning screen pairing, and the film plays to their strengths.