11/24/2013 06:23 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2014

Dench and Coogan in Philomena : Not Too Sappy, Not Too Harsh

If you're going to tell a heart-warming story about a sweet, wronged little old lady, it helps -- even if she is played by Judi Dench -- to have a hard-nosed, mordantly witty, cynical journalist along to offset the sugar quotient. That is the brilliant strategy behind the warm, lovely Philomena, the fact-based story of Philomena Lee (Dench), whose 3-year-old son was forcibly taken from her by Irish nuns who were her supposed protectors, and adopted away to America.

Soft-voiced and touchingly craggy-faced, Dench is the heart of the film. Steve Coogan is its brain; he is a producer, he co-wrote the screenplay (with Jeff Pope) and he suavely plays Martin Sixsmith, a one-time hotshot and now umemployed reporter, who can barely say the words "human interest story" without sneering.

Theirs is an unlikely pairing as Martin, on assignment, helps Philomena, now a retired nurse with a grown daughter, find the son she hasn't seen in nearly 50 years. They go back to the austere, gloomy convent in Ireland where Philomena and other unwed teenaged mothers worked like indentured servants in a laundry and saw their children for minutes a day, if the children hadn't been whisked off to new parents.

Eventually the nearly-cold trail - the nuns are politely unhelpful, offering tea while hiding the truth -- takes them to Washington. DC, where Martin realizes that he must have crossed paths with Philomena's son, Anthony, when Martin was a White House reporter.

This story is dramatic, but it's the interplay between Philomena and Martin that creates the film's perfect, see-sawing balance, capturing the sweet spot of mass audience appeal. Meek and accepting, Philomena is no crusader, and doesn't doubt the Catholic upbringing that tells her she has sinned. When she recalls the night of her son's conception, she says about sex, "I knew anything that felt so wonderful had to be wrong," and Martin is right there to rail against the wrong-headedness all those nuns drilled into her head; he makes this potentially too-sentimental film safe for skeptics. Yet whenever his edge threatens to become too harsh, she steps in with a gentle, matter of fact attitude to reassure the un-cynical part of the audience, observing that she doesn't want to hate the way Martin does, that it must be exhausting to feel so angry all the time.

The earliest Washington scenes find some comedy from Philomena-in-the-big-city, but that is simply the film's way of easing us toward the wrenching emotional discoveries ahead. Even if you know the story, those discoveries have the force of whiplash. By then Philomena and Martin have become real enough -- to the audience and to each other -- so that the plot avoids melodrama.

Stephen Frears is one of those directors who is usually as good as his material, and when he has a terrific screenplay like The Queen or Philomena, he knows how to manage it. Sometimes, as in The Queen, he refuses to let any visual stunts overwhelm the characters and the realism. Here he uses a few more tricks, very effectively. Early on, Dench looks in a mirror and the image of her lined face fades into a memory of her past, a colorful carnival scene when the young Philomena meets her son's father. Throughout the film, we see videos of Anthony, even before we quite know how they fit, whether they are Philomena's imaginings or something more. Sparing and eloquent, these devices add layers of grace and depth.

The film covers the same tragic, scandalous part of Irish-Catholic history as Peter Mullan's much harsher The Magdalene Sisters (2002), but the essence of Frears' film, embodied in its heroine and beautifully conveyed by Dench, is forgiveness. It's a mark of the film's savvy honesty that Martin does not forgive the outrages he uncovers; and it's a mark of its emotional reach and generosity that he -- and we -- come to understand and embrace Philomena.

To see a trailer for the film and a glimpse of the real Philomena today, please go to