Greeted with huge enthusiasm at its press screening at the Venice Film Festival, Stephen Frears's Philomena is a funny, well-observed tearjerker featuring a wonderful performance from Judi Dench and a very good and understated one from Steve Coogan.
Coogan, who co-wrote and produced the film, plays the former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith. Dench is Philomena Lee, an Irish lady who in the early 1950s became pregnant as a teenager. She was sent as a "fallen woman" to the convent of Roscrea and forced to give up her child for adoption. Years later, Sixsmith, at a low ebb in his career, helped Lee search for her missing son with the aim of writing a story about her.
Dench and Coogan's characters are the quintessential odd couple. She is a religious Daily Mail-reading Catholic; he is a sardonic and world-weary atheist. They are on screen together throughout most of the film. They meet in England, head to Ireland to visit the sisters in the convent and eventually travel to the US.
The brilliance of Dench's performance lies in the sure-footed way she combines comedy and extreme pathos without ever lapsing into caricature. Coogan underplays beautifully, hiding his own emotions behind ironic one-liners.
This material could have easily seemed schmaltzy in the extreme. It could also have been patronising and glib. Thankfully, Frears manages to get the tone just right. Even the most jaded of audiences will find it hard not to be moved by Philomena's quest for her missing son.