Movie review: “Philomena” an unlikely crowd-pleaser

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From the November 28, 2013 edition

It’s unusual that a movie could cover some truly heavy topics and still feel like a light-hearted crowd-pleaser, but that’s what “Philomena” pulls off. It’s a cliche, yes, but you’ll laugh and you’ll cry.

Based on an amazing true story and starring no less than Dame Judi Dench, it’s also this year’s awards entry from a studio that knows a thing or two about how to play this game, The Weinstein Company. In other words, expect to hear a lot about this little movie between now and Oscar night.

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) was a high-level advisor in British government before a public gaffe forces him to leave his post. Now he’s contemplating writing a book about Russian history.

At a dinner party, he meets the daughter of Philomena Lee (Dench), a pensioner who is searching for the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier in an Irish convent.

Martin feels above a tear-jerker human interest story — but, as a journalist, let me tell you, work is work. He connects with the eccentric Philomena on a search that eventually leads to America.

I’d be a grouch to call the two leads anything but delightful, and they both stretch in directions you mightn’t expect. Dench, of course, has the dramatic moments down, but she’s also funnier than you could imagine (though sometimes Philomena’s quirk makes her come off a bit, as the Brits would say, daft).

You’d expect the comic relief from Coogan, who also co-wrote the script, but he also presses things on the dramatic side, giving the film some fiery indignation.

The indignation is called for as the twists and turns of the story get weightier. If you make this your family Thanksgiving movie, you might want to avoid your right-wing uncle or die-hard Catholic grandma after the show.

Director Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “High Fidelity”) has made a solid crowd-pleaser, though almost to a fault. Given the seriousness of events, things feel a bit too tidy and precious at times. It’s a good film that falls short of great for me.

Still, Dench looks like an Oscar lock, and the Weinstein PR machine could land more.

Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company