Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in ’Philomena’
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in 'Philomena'

Judi Dench is 78 years old. And in her starring role in Philomena, she displays more talent and vigor than the lead actors and actresses in 95 percent of this year's movies.

In a jarringly fascinating true story, Dench plays Philomena Lee, an old woman wracked by grief for giving up an illegitimate son she had given birth to 50 years before. For Philomena, who lived in an Irish convent, this wasn't a fun Teen Mom scenario. The nuns chastised her for her lecherous indiscretion and sent the 3-year-old child away for adoption without giving Philomena a chance to say goodbye.

Fifty years later, she's determined to find him, and who better to help her but a salty British journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope). Martin recently lost his government job and is considering writing a really exciting-sounding book about Russian history.

When Philomena's daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) first tells him about her mother's story and asks him to help, he calls it a "human interest story," to him the ultimate low of journalistic integrity. He later reluctantly accepts, and soon finds himself on a road trip with the chatty Philomena.


Martin and Philomena meet people along the way, but this is almost entirely a two-person picture. Luckily, it's also a master class in mismatched chemistry, with Dench amiably blabbing about romance novels and Big Momma's House and Coogan giving her terse, exasperated responses whenever he can fit in a word. Sixsmith's diligence paid off -- his 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee unveiled a decades-long scandal in the Catholic Church. Get in line, Marty.

It's a story perfectly balanced between humor and heartbreak; not everything turns out the way we (or Philomena and Martin) expect. But the journey brings about the unlikeliest of friendships and proves that journalists really can make a difference -- even though they'll still be rude the whole time.

P.S. -- If you have nightmares about evil nuns, you might not want to see this movie. Forget The Conjuring. This convent houses the scariest characters of the year.

Grade: A

Rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, and sexual references.

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