Philomena (PG-13) (98 min.) — The title is the name of an aging Irish woman with a lifelong secret she can keep no more. Decades before, Philomena Lee was an unwed teenage mother banished to a convent, forced into servitude for her sin and separated from her newborn son. Like many of the convent's children, the boy, named Anthony, was adopted.
Philomena always wondered what became of Anthony, if he ever thought of her. On what would be Anthony's 50th birthday, she wants to know.
Thus begins Philomena's emotionally complex quest, played more amusingly than expected thanks to the personalities involved and several unforeseen twists. That is, unless you've read Martin Sixsmith's book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, chronicling his investigation, with her, into Anthony's fate, and the ravages of Catholic guilt. The movie's funnier than that sounds yet as tear-tugging as the subject deserves, and carried by a terrific performance.
Dame Judi Dench's Philomena is among her career's most optimistic characters, a woman who despite her circumstance is free of self-pity or vindictiveness, finding silver linings in nuns who sold children, sending them away. "They were only trying to get them a better life," she chirps, and her empathy hurts. Age lines in Dench's face become a hundred smiles or frowns depending on Philomena's mood, and the camera leans close, examining each one.
Steve Coogan's Martin plays perfectly against Philomena's dotty charm with cynical wit mostly over her head, barely tolerating his chipper companion and her recitations of plots of romance novels. An underestimated talent in the United States, this British comedian co-wrote a zesty screenplay, including the priceless grumble: "She told four people today they're one in a million. What are the chances of that?"
Director Stephen Frears keeps the humor and heartache coming at a stately pace, muting the story's innate sentimentality. Anthony's patiently uncovered truths are the only real surprises. Philomena is simply one of those small, true stories that astonish in print and inspire good movies, showing up in theaters just in time for awards consideration. In Dench's case, consider her an Oscar favorite. B+
Steve Persall, Times movie critic