Dench and Coogan are the beating heart of Frears' cinematic social/political commentary, as their work together is enough to accommodate many of the flaws in storytelling.
Philomena stars Dame Judi Dench as the movie's namesake, a simple yet kind-hearted elderly working-class Irish woman and devoted Catholic, who has years of hospital service under her belt, in addition to being the mother of a grown woman named Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin). One evening, a quietly distraught Philomena shows her daughter a black and white photograph of a young boy, confessing that she had a son, around 50 years ago. However, because she was an unwed teenager at the time (coming from a strict Catholic background), Philomena's family condemned her and sent her to live in a convent. There, she was basically forced into slave labor - in order to pay off her "debt" to the Church - and required to sign away her claim on her own son.
Jane seeks out former BBC journalist-turned disgraced Labour government advisor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), in the hopes that he will assist her mother to investigate what happened to her son, after the Catholic Church (in essence) sold him. Reluctant at first, Sixsmith later agrees to take the job, setting him on a path that leads to places he never expected - ones that reveal hard truths about Philomena's efforts to track down her son in the past (and why they've always failed).
Philomena is an "inspired by true events" addition to the social realism genre, as was directed by Stephen Frears: the lauded English filmmaker whose previous output includes Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Dirty Pretty Things and the Oscar-winning The Queen. As with any fictionalized adaptation of actual history, Philomena alters certain facts in order to tell a proper three-act story - one that deals with ideas/themes of forgiveness and the importance of social/religious tolerance - but while also dealing with the political subject matter that is inherent to the real-life Philomena's experience (read: the Catholic Church's abuse of the lower-class in the 20th century and subsequent attempts to cover up the wrong-doing).
By and large, the film succeeds as both a meditation on different outlooks - Philomena's undeterred spirituality versus Sixsmith's jaded intellectual perspective - and as a more intimate (and often charmingly funny) study of two very different people, who undertake a physical/emotional journey together. The screenplay by Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope (Essex Boys, Dirty Filthy Love), adapted from the real Sixsmith's book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee", can sometimes be a little melodramatic when it comes to exploring the sociopolitical aspects of the story, which is especially a problem during the portions of the film where neither Dench nor Coogan are onscreen. Fortunately, those instances are rare, as the two leads are onscreen for the bulk of the running time and help rescue scenes that might've played out as either too mawkish or manipulative otherwise.
In terms of direction, Frears and his cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Ginger & Rosa) often film the scenery in a clean, yet unfiltered manner that allows the settings to speak for themselves (especially the often drab Northern Ireland countryside in fall/winter). Meanwhile, Frears and his editor Valerio Bonelli (The Cold Light of Day) frame the central narrative with scratchy home video footage of Philomena's son at different ages; their approach is a little clunky and confusing earlier on, but grows more effective as the story's various twists and turns unfold.
There is a significant flaw in how the film is constructed as a whole, which lies with both the direction and writing. Basically, there's something of a running joke where characters discuss the meaning of a "human interest story" - a story about the struggles of real-life ordinary people that is painted in broad strokes in order to get an easy emotional reaction - and criticize the concept; yet, those criticisms are sometimes applicable to the movie itself. As mentioned before, though, this is mostly only an issue when Philomena strays away from its character story core.
Dench's performance, as you've probably heard by now, is the major selling point for the film. As Philomena, the Oscar-winner does an excellent job of not exuding her customary degree of intelligence, yet she remains able to portray Mrs. Lee in a respectful manner. In turn, the character is believable as a sincere old woman from an uneducated background, whose delight with the world is endearing (not overly cutesy). Because of this, it can be truly heart-breaking at times to watch her wrangle with the undeserved guilt she feels - and make peace with the wrongful acts committed against her.
Coogan is uncharacteristically buttoned down here, but he still does a nice job of playing the skeptical straight man to Dench's outgoing protagonist. Sixsmith's arc is mostly satisfying, as the character progressively experiences a moral reawakening after starting from a place of apathy and snide disillusionment. Admittedly, though, by the time the film reaches its conclusion, there's not a whole lot of wiggle room for audiences to decide whose outlook they agree with more, Sixsmith's or Philomena's (in other words: the "correct" answer gets spoon-fed to you).
As for the supporting cast members in Philomena, they're very much side dressing to Coogan and Dench's performances as the main course. Nevertheless, people like Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones), Barbara Jefford (The Ninth Gate) and Peter Hermann (Our Idiot Brother) still manage to get a respectable amount of emotional mileage out of their few scenes. Ultimately, though, Dench and Coogan are the beating heart of Frears' cinematic social/political commentary, as their work together is enough to accommodate many of the flaws in storytelling - making Philomena a heart-churning and enjoyable moviegoing experience, as a whole.
In case you're still undecided, here is the trailer for Philomena:
Philomena is now playing in a limited U.S. theatrical release, but will expand to more theaters over the forthcoming weeks. It is 98 minutes long and Rated PG-13 on appeal for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references.