As prevalent as religion and religious belief are in the world, it is surprising how few films deal directly with the realities and difficulties of living up to such a high moral standard. Veteran director Stephen Frears, working from a first-rate script by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope that's based on a true story, does exactly that in the smart, funny, and deeply poignant Philomena.
The title character, played by Judi Dench, is a woman in her eighties who, as a teenager, was forced by the nuns at the convent where she worked to give her child up for adoption. Overwhelmed by the need to finally find him, the occasionally dotty Philomena is aided in her quest by Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a disgraced former government press agent now eking out a career as a freelance journalist. Their search for her son leads to America, where it turns out that Sixsmith's political experience may be of more help than he imagined.
For all of its deeper themes about faith, forgiveness, and love, Philomena is first and foremost a road movie in which the sweet, simple old woman keeps annoying the cynical, sardonic reporter to the point of comedic frustration. In that respect, you could not ask for a more perfect odd couple than Dench and Coogan. She plays unfailingly polite and earnest without making it seem dull, and Coogan portrays congenital smugness with greater dexterity than anyone on the planet -- they are a ceaselessly amusing pair.
There are few directors as adept with actors as Frears, and here he lets his dynamic duo shine at every opportunity. There's a scene early on in which Philomena explains in great detail to Martin the plot of the romance novel she's reading. The entire interaction happens as they are whizzing around an airport on the back of a shuttle -- and the monologue transpires over the course of four elaborate dolly shots that give you the sensation of movement while simultaneously letting you savor both Dench's hilarious speech and Coogan's deadpan reactions that communicate his annoyance at listening to this woman prattle on.
All that sparring sets us up for the moment when the mystery of Philomena's son deepens, and soon Martin -- who started out helping the old woman for his own benefit -- finds himself more invested in the outcome than he ever expected. This is a remarkable and revealing change of pace for Coogan as a performer. His comedic persona is one of curdled sarcasm, and as the co-writer here he's figured out a way to show the full range of emotions that type of character can encompass. He's just as funny here as he's ever been, but, as in The Trip, he reveals an unexpected depth in a man that at first seems incapable of feeling anything other than disdain.
Their character arcs culminate in a climactic scene in which they confront the people responsible for taking Philomena's son away from her. The differences between Philomena and Martin in this moment are stark, and the sequence lays bare the movie's deep humanity: It does not require you to choose sides between her devout belief or his cynical secularism, but simply shows that these are two valid ways of dealing with your life and the world.
Philomena is a beautiful movie because it isn't about how people are wronged, but how they react to being wronged. It's also a ceaselessly entertaining film because Dench and Coogan are playing fully realized characters and share a unique comedic chemistry. Under Frears' sympathetic eye, all of it comes together -- making Philomena yet another gem in his formidable filmography.