Critic’s Pick: ‘Philomena’

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Thelma Adams
·Writer
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Must-See Movies Beyond the Blockbusters


Philomena
Philomena

Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan could easily do an odd couple comedy. Who knew? That’s one of the peculiar revelations of Stephen Frears’ dry, amusing and deeply moving ripped-from-the-headlines road movie.

In "Philomena," Dench is the title character, an Irish Catholic forced by nuns to give her love child up for adoption when she was young and unmarried. On what would have been her son’s 50th birthday, Philomena intensifies her search for him. At her side is the reluctant political journalist -- and curmudgeon -- Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a lapsed Catholic trying to find his feet after being sacked from his job at the Ministry.

[Related: Steve Coogan Defends 'Philomena' Profanity]

Philomena and Michael form an unlikely pair -- she a folksy Irish granny who slipped once in her youth while at a fair, he a sophisticated Londoner who has little interest in the common man (or woman). Based on Sixsmith’s nonfiction bestseller optioned by Coogan, who also co-wrote with Jeff Pope and produced, the relationship between journalist and subject forms the movie’s emotional core.

It’s easy to forget that Dame Dench, 78, she of Bond’s somber mother figure M and player of queens and mums, has deep roots in comedy. She starred in the long-running British sitcom, "As Time Goes By." Here, Dench plays a rich and complex character embedded in a particular time and place that happens to be at the far end of a long and productive life. She's no cookie-cutter old lady.

[Related: 2014 Oscar Predictions: Meet the Lock-Down Winners...]

Yes, with someone like Dench, it seems like we must drag out the Awards baggage -- will she, won’t she? Answer: Hers is an Oscar-worthy performance that never tries to be. There are so many colors here, and so many quick turns between tragedy and comedy, that it would be difficult to find a more nimble performance this season.

Comedian Coogan -- in a career move parallel to comic Will Forte’s dramatic turn in "Nebraska" -- unwinds just enough to trust the camera and stop the antic laugh-track. Through writing and performing, the British comedian ("The Trip") has taken the actual figure of Sixsmith and partially remade him in his own image. Coogan has folded in his own brand of shrewdness and stubbornness and social ineptitude. Without Coogan’s edge and irritability, and Frears' restraint, "Philomena" might have dripped off the page.

Surprises abound along the way in this journey in search of a son lost, both in looking at the past conditions that forced Philomena to abandon her beloved, and in what she and Sixsmith discover on a trip that takes them to America and back. By the end, it seems absolutely unsurprising that Dench and Coogan would meld together so perfectly.

Bottom Line: "Philomena" makes headlines as an ideal multi-generational holiday movie