Movie Review: ‘Philomena’ just sweet enough

An ounce of cynicism might dissuade the careful moviegoer from seeing “Philomena.” On the surface, there’s the promotional poster: the classic “odd couple” juxtaposition, Steve Coogan, eyebrow raised, looking across laurel-enclosed praise at a downright grandmotherly Judi Dench. The design suggests a buddy-cop movie with tea cozies.

Then there’s the director Stephen Frears: doomed to carry “High Fidelity” around on his shoulder like a boombox-shaped black mark. “Yes, yes, John Cusack,” you can almost hear him saying to unimpressed film executives, “but I made ‘Dirty Pretty Things,’ and ‘The Queen’!”

How fitting then that “Philomena” is a beautifully-made movie about the deceptive nature of appearance. Based on Martin Sixsmith’s (true) book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” the film follows the successful journalist and former spin doctor as he and Lee attempt to find her son after 50 years. Lee, who was abandoned at a convent as a pregnant teenager by her father, had no say when the nuns responsible for her sold her son into adoption to American parents. Steve Coogan plays the very believable (if not always flattering) Sixsmith, and Dame Dench plays Lee.

Early in the film, a down-on-his-luck Sixsmith dismisses human interest stories as being both written by and intended for “vulnerable, soft-minded people.” It’s often hard to argue that, and “Philomena” could have easily taken turns into the film equivalent, using gimmicky plot devices and well-timed orchestral swells to get at your heartstrings (and wallet).

Dench is one of those actors who could read a Denny’s menu and make it Shakespeare. As the more-than-meets-the-eye Lee, she finds herself in the role you’d almost expect her trying to avoid: a quaint, Irish, grandmotherly-type.

“I’ve now seen what a lifetime of ‘The Daily Mail,’ ‘Reader’s Digest’ and romance novels does to the human brain,” Coogan-as-Sixsmith relays to his wife over the phone.

But Dench manages to portray Lee’s “simplicities” with a dignity and charm that never feels condescending. Just because Lee chooses to read a romantic mystery while Sixsmith opts for political theory on their long flight to America does not mean that she is unintelligent or without lessons for the worldly journalist. As the two characters argue over faith and forgiveness, the film is at its best.

Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is beautiful, though the argument could be made that a fog-covered Ireland may not have been the most difficult obstacle for someone in his line of work. Also to his credit, the same level of subtlety and sophistication remains in the shots of American hotels and airports. The score is understated to the point of being forgettable (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). The acting is superb, the story sweet without being saccharine, and the themes of the movie are stated softly rather than attached to bludgeons and pounded into your psyche.

If “Philomena” gets you by the heartstrings, it’s not by use of smoke and mirrors. It’s an honest and very human movie, well worth the price of admission, and a great film to see over the holidays – unless you’re a fuddy-duddy.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars.