Familiar themes fill ‘Philomena,’ but the true story still surprises

Contributed
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in ‘Philomena.’ Rated PG-13, 98 min. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 2013.

Surprises are always welcome at the movie theater during this season of blockbusters and overwrought awards-bait, so “Philomena” plays perfectly as a no-frills, grown-up crowd-pleaser that sneakily packs an emotional wallop.

After keeping the secret for 50 years, Philomena (Judi Dench) enlists the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay) to find the son who was taken from her by nuns. Based on real-life events, the story goes from the Irish countryside to Washington, D.C., and keeps you guessing as the family mystery unfolds bit by bit.

The unlikely duo of Dench and Coogan have a sweet and sour relationship that brings some genuine laughs. This is easily Dench’s most low-key and relatable role in quite some time. Dench makes Philomena a realistic, complex person, but keeps the performance impressively accessible in its no-nonsense simplicity. There’s real heart here.

Director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) doesn’t do anything fancy, but that may be because he was content simply letting the moving material speak for itself.

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