ON A MISSION: Dench (as Philomena Lee) and Coogan (as Martin Sixsmith).
Marking a terribly sad period for the Catholic Church in 1920s Ireland, Americans reportedly arrived in droves to adopt small children from the convents to take back home to the mainland. "If you had 1000 pounds you could get a baby," someone points out. That's exactly what befell Philomena Lee in 1925, forced by her caregivers, a set of "evil nuns" to give up her baby for adoption while working to pay off a debt at the Rosecrea Abbey.
In the hands of director Stephen Frears (The Queen), Lee's incredible true story gets an engrossing cinematic telling, anchored by Dame Judi Dench (in the titular role) at her imperial best.
As the story goes, 50 years after last setting eyes on her boy Anthony, Philomena, buoyed by the urging of her daughter Jane, resolves to reconnect with him, even if that means going to the ends of the Earth.
When a former BBC veteran reporter named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) reluctantly agrees to take on the piece as an investigative human interest story, their epic quest takes them to the United States and back, precipitating not only a mother's long-overdue reckoning with her past but also elucidates an unbelievably sad history involving the Catholic Church in Europe and the countless families who suffered (whether directly or indirectly) at their hands.
Even so, Frears is not one to point fingers, opting instead to bring this compelling real-life story (based on Sixsmith's 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee) to audiences, with honesty and poignancy.
An actress who has repeatedly astonished us with her skill and versatility, Dench's performance is likely to become one of the great ones of her illustrious career, landing smack in the pantheon reserved for her previous Oscar-nominated turns in such hits as Shakespeare in Love and Notes on a Scandal. As portrayed by Dench, Philomena feels like your good-natured high-school English teacher whose heart and sense of humour rests very much on her steely resolve and quiet strength.
An important and occasionally wrenching look at the ties that bind, Philomena is sure to resonate with anyone who's ever yearned to reconnect with a long-lost loved one. Tyrone's Verdict: A