Charming yet tough and not blinkered by its own good intentions, “Philomena” is an ideal vehicle for the beloved Judi Dench from a somewhat unlikely source: It was co-scripted and co-produced by its co-star, the typically acid Steve Coogan, for his Baby Cow Productions company, which specializes in smart British TV comedy.
Credited writers Coogan and Jeff Pope adapted the script from the nonfiction book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by British journalist Martin Sixsmith. The director is Stephen Frears, many years past the era when he would have seemed an unusual choice for a crowd-pleaser aimed at older audiences: His early films include “My Beautiful Laundrette” (gay multicultural love) and “The Grifters” (sex and murder), but more recently he’s found success directing Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates in “Chéri” and Helen Mirren in “The Queen.”
“Philomena” was inspired by the true story of Philomena Lee’s search for the infant son taken from her some 50 years earlier, after she gave birth while living, essentially, as a teenage indentured servant in a convent in Ireland. The search was abetted by Sixsmith (played in the film by Coogan), a former BBC reporter and government spin doctor in need of work who becomes a road companion and investigator for the woman (Dench). Sixsmith senses Philomena’s quest will make a marketable “human interest” story, even though early in the movie he disdains such yarns as being of interest only to “weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people.”
Frears and his collaborators spend the rest of the movie trying to prove Sixsmith wrong, and they are more or less successful. The search for Philomena’s child yields several surprises on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as some strong criticism of the Roman Catholic Church of decades past, when it was eager to “shame” an unmarried pregnant girl for her “carnal incontinence.”
The film’s message, however, is secondary to the playfulness of the stars. The formidable Dench and the wry Coogan make a nice team, even if the contrast in their personalities seems a bit too neat and a tad condescending: She’s a kind and unsophisticated woman whose faith in God remains unshaken despite her mistreatment by the church, while he’s a supercilious and unhappy atheist.
They both make excuses for the cultures that supported and then betrayed them: She, for the church; he, for the news media. Together, they suggest a sort of aged Laurel and Hardy, with Dench playing the straight man whose unintentionally humorous comments elicit slow-motion double takes and semi-concealed pained reactions from her companion.
“Philomena” is at the Malco Ridgeway Cinema Grill.
Rated PG-13 for profanity, adult themes and sexual references.