November 27, 2013 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: 'Philomena' is tragedy wrapped in wise comedy

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in the heartfelt 'Philomena.' (Alex Bailey)

There’s something terribly ugly at the heart of “Philomena,” but you’d hardly know it.

Director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) has taken a tragic story and turned it into something of an odd-couple comedy, and strangely enough it works. A lot of the reason it does has to with the chemistry between leads Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

Dench plays the real-life Philomena Lee, a woman searching for a son taken from her by nuns at a Catholic convent. Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay, is a burnout civil servant and sometime reporter named Martin Sixsmith whose career has stalled.

It’s suggested that what he needs to do is find a really good, heartfelt human interest story to reignite things, even though Sixsmith has no love for such writing. But when he hears of Lee’s quest to find her child, it sounds like a good-enough subject.

It immediately becomes obvious that the church is going to be no help. The fates of long-gone children are of no interest. Philomena was sent to the convent when she became pregnant, along with scores of other young women, and she even got to watch her son grow for a bit before wealthy Americans came and whisked him away.

Eventually Sixsmith and Philomena hit the road, traveling to Washington, D.C., and the back-and-forth between the down-to-earth older lady and the condescending and yet increasingly intrigued writer makes for much fun. But then the story grows more touching, and ultimately Frears turns the knife just far enough to draw blood.

Dench is a delight, playing dowdy instead of her standard regal, and Coogan is appropriately droll and disillusioned. Together they manage to make a sad story feel somehow bright.

'Philomena'

GRADE: B

Rated R for some language

Running time: 98 minutes

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