Philomena Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark. Directed by Stephen Frears. Rated PG-13. Now playing.
British journalist Martin Sixsmith recently told The Guardian that he didn’t mind being portrayed as “a bit of an upper-class prat who takes himself too seriously” in Philomena, the movie based on Sixsmith’s book about an Irish woman searching for the child she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier. The movie’s early portrayal of Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay) is a necessary component of its weepy, feel-good narrative, in which the cynical, opportunistic journalist has his heart melted by the plight of lovable old lady Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). After getting pregnant out of wedlock in 1952, Philomena was sent to a convent, where her son was eventually taken from her and adopted by a well-to-do couple.
Coogan and Dench are both talented actors who play their parts effectively, and their warm performances smooth over the tearjerking conventions of the narrative. It’s hard not to be moved by Philomena’s real-life journey, but the movie turns out to be as cynical as its version of Sixsmith, tugging on heartstrings at every possible turn and relying on Dench to class up its groan-worthy clueless-old-lady jokes. She does as much as she can, but the experience still turns out to be fundamentally hollow.