Monday, November 25, 2013
Having set the bar for least screen time in an Oscar-winning performance in "Shakespeare in Love," Dame Judi Dench occupies almost every scene of the new tearjerker "Philomena," about an English nurse's search for the boy she was forced to give up for adoption fifty years earlier.
Philomena Lee became pregnant the first time she had relations with a boy, and the Catholic Church made a decades-long practice of placing such babies with foreign families - for a "donation" of about $1,000 apiece. When Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), recently sacked as Tony Blair's press secretary, consents to write her human interest story, the two travel back to her convent in Ireland and from there to America, where her Anthony became Michael, legal counsel to presidents Reagan and Bush pѐre.
Dench rises to the occasion with a lovely, understated performance, capturing a lifetime's worth of shame and regret with just a casting down of the eyes. It's the first time I can remember an audience warming to Coogan, who deftly straddles the line between realism and cynicism. And the underused Mare Winningham brings a no-nonsense edge to Michael's sister. There's not much in the way of conflict here - nobody's going to cheer for the shriveled old nun who calls Philomena's pain her just desserts - but Stephen Frears' picture is sweet and effective: even the burly gentleman a row behind me couldn't pass off his sniffling as a cold.