PHILOMENA IS A QUIRKY MOVIE about an adorable old Irish lady—played by none other than Dame Judi Dench—and its release is timed to coincide with prime holiday family-movie viewing season. You're right to be skeptical. All signs point to schlock.
But Philomena is excellent, thanks to the brilliant odd-couple pairing of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan—and to a script that balances heart, humor, and a fierce sense of moral outrage.
Closely based on a true story, Philomena is about a disgraced government official, Martin Sixsmith (Coogan, who also co-wrote the script), who picks up a freelance writing assignment to keep himself busy after he's forced to resign from his job. It's a human interest story: An elderly woman, Philomena (Dench), is trying to track down the son she gave birth to in a convent more than 50 years before, when she was young, unwed, and forced to give her fatherless baby up for adoption. Her mission takes her to the US, with Martin a cynical guide and counterpoint to her unerring, cute-little-old-lady cheer.
Philomena is deeply personally invested in finding her son, but Martin is looking for a good story—a story that begins to look pretty good indeed when it becomes clear that it involves eeeevil nuns and faith-based oppression in both Ireland and the US. The tension between their respective agendas only compounds the many ways in which these two are different: Philomena is deeply religious, while Martin is an atheist; Philomena is kindly to a fault, Martin is kind of a dick. Philomena is a surprisingly complex little film that pulls off some impressive balancing acts; chief among them is that it permits two very different worldviews and personality types to co-exist without condemning either one. Dench and Coogan should franchise an odd-couple buddy comedy series, because their pairing is perfect.