A subdued Steve Coogan shows up in Philomena (he also co-wrote the script), and his demeanor serves the film well. Whenever things get too didactic – Stephen Frears does direct with a heavy hand – Coogan’s solemn presence helps the picture regain its balance.
Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, an out-of-work journalist who begrudgingly takes on a “human interest” investigative piece: helping Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) track down the son whom she was forced to give away when she lived as a teen at a Catholic home for unwed mothers.
The odd-couple pairing is hit or miss; Coogan and Dench have a nice rapport, but not always the comic material to take advantage of it. Coogan is best, actually, when he lets his comedian’s aggressiveness take a back seat and simply, wryly sits with Martin’s exhausted anger. (“Do you believe in God?” Philomena asks. “Where do you start?” he answers.)
Though it flickers with the fury that coursed through Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, another film about this chapter in U.K. history, Philomena ultimately strives to be a tale of forgiveness. And while it hits those notes fairly hard, there is no doubt that the ending is deeply affecting. Like The Help before it, Philomena overcomes its occasional leadenness to offer a stirring story of compassion and grace.