Philomena is a quirky movie about an adorable old Irish lady—played by none other than Dame Judi Dench—and its release is timed to coincide with prime holiday family-movie-viewing season. You're right to be skeptical. All signs point to schlock.
But Philomena is excellent, thanks to the brilliant odd-couple pairing of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan—and to a script that balances heart, humor, and a fierce sense of moral outrage.
Closely based on a true story, Philomena is about a disgraced government official, Martin Sexsmith (Coogan, who also cowrote the script), who picks up a freelance writing assignment to keep himself busy after he's forced to resign from his job. It's a human-interest story: An elderly woman, Philomena (Dench), is trying to track down the son she gave birth to in a convent more than 50 years before, when she was young, unwed, and forced to give her fatherless baby up for adoption. Her mission takes her to the United States, with Martin a cynical guide and counterpoint to her unerring cute-little-old-lady cheer.
Philomena is deeply personally invested in finding her son, but Martin is looking for a good story—a story that begins to look pretty good indeed when it becomes clear that it involves eeeevil nuns and faith-based oppression in both Ireland and the US. The tension between their respective agendas only compounds the many ways in which these two are different: Philomena is deeply religious, while Martin is an atheist; Philomena is kindly to a fault, and Martin is kind of a dick. Philomena is a surprisingly complex little film that pulls off some impressive balancing acts; chief among them is that it permits two very different worldviews and personality types to coexist without condemning either one. Dench and Coogan should franchise an odd-couple buddy comedy series, because their pairing is perfect.