This is another movie that I really didn’t want to sit through. I looked at the trailer and saw a treacly, unfunny mess that starred a sleepwalking Judi Dench. Then I saw the film’s 92 percent Tomatometer and was baffled. This had to be a case of critics falling over themselves to praise Dench, I thought. How could this movie possibly be so good?

Well, it wasn’t easy, but Philomena is indeed a good film.

The movie is based on a non-fiction book titled “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” It was written by Martin Sixsmith, here played by co-writer/co-producer Steve Coogan. Judi Dench, meanwhile, plays the eponymous Philomena. We first meet Sixsmith while he’s between jobs, shortly after losing his position as an international correspondent for the BBC. Philomena’s story… well, that’s going to take a bit more explanation.

Philomena was given up by her parents and raised in an Ireland convent. Things went relatively well until her teen years, when she went and got knocked up by some passing guy. Naturally, this meant no end of shame and degradation from the nuns raising her. They even made her give birth without any anaesthesic, for God’s sake (literally?). Phil was only allowed to see her son for an hour a day, right up until some wealthy couple came and adopted the child. Philomena herself was not consulted in the matter, and she never even got to say goodbye. She just signed a piece of paper saying that she would never go looking for her son and that was it.

Later on, there would be a massive fire that destroyed all the adoption records in the abbey. But that contract Philomena signed was still perfectly intact. If you think that sounds peculiar, you’re not the only one. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, Sixsmith goes to some party and overhears the story of this woman who gave a kid up for adoption and kept it a secret for fifty years. Desperate for work, he agrees to meet with Philomena and publish her story. What follows is a transcontinental search to find out what happened to Philomena’s son.

This film could easily have gone wrong in so many ways, yet Coogan, Dench, and director Stephen Frears do a fantastic job of keeping everything on the rails. To start with, the basic premise of a mother getting torn away from her son is very tough material, and it’s portrayed here with a tremendous amount of dramatic weight. The execution is simply heartwrenching, which does a lot to make the character sympathetic and the story worth investing in. This is a film that needed someone like Dench, who could muster huge amounts of emotion and make it look effortless. Credit is also due to Sophie Kennedy Clark, who does a tearjerking job as Philomena’s younger self.

Even better, the film is good enough to keep things light with just the right amount of humor. Though that’s sort of hit-and-miss. Every time Philomena went off on some rant about a book she read or about American food portion sizes, it got very annoying very quickly. Still, she was never annoying enough for me to completely hate the character. It’s extremely hard to hate a kind old lady too scatterbrained to know when she’s rambling, after all. Plus, Sixsmith has a very dry and down-to-earth sense of humor that contrasted with her very nicely.

This brings me to another aspect of the film that could have irreparably sunk a lesser film but only serves to make this one greater. I refer, of course, to the religious aspect. See, Sixsmith grew up as a Roman Catholic but lost his faith some time ago. Compare that to Philomena, who remains a staunch Catholic in spite of everything that happened to her while being raised by nuns. In the hands of inferior filmmakers, the movie could have steered too far into either side and ended up a preachy, condescending bore (and the film does come dangerously close to that at points in the third act). Yet that’s not what happens.

In execution, though Philomena and Sixsmith have a very deep difference of opinion on matters of faith, they’re both willing to overlook that. Neither of them insist on being right, and the film doesn’t present either one as being right. Example: Philomena’s son was taken from her and sold to an American couple. Philomena basically says “They allowed my son to have a better life than I could have provided. I forgive them.” In rebuttal, Sixsmith says “Their actions were immoral and should be punished, fuck ’em all!” Neither of them are necessarily right, and they’re not exactly wrong, either.

As such, the religious debate is mostly used to serve as character development, and also as a good source of conflict between our two leads. It’s also a neat illustration of the debates about justice, redemption, sin, compassion, and other issues that we all must invariably address in the process of deciding our approach toward faith.

It also bears mentioning that the plot has some very clever twists. Every time the film threatened to get too saccharine — or not saccharine enough — the filmmakers were usually good enough to throw an unexpected curveball and get things back to where they needed to be. It kept the proceedings from getting predictable or formulaic, and the effort is greatly appreciated.

On a similar note, the film ends with a reminder that this is based on a true story. More importantly, it wasn’t the only one. A title card informs us that thousands of children were taken from unwed mothers and then sold to families who gave generously to the church. Many of those children never found their biological parents, the Catholic Church made enormous profits, and the mothers were subjected to so much abuse for their perceived sin. It’s quite possibly the most evil thing that the Catholic Church has done within our lifetimes, right up there with the pedophilia allegations. And any film that ends on such a rage-inducing note was certainly not meant to be your typical Hollywood heartwarmer.

Philomena is what happens when sterling execution happens to a bland premise. If it wasn’t for the exceptional lead performances and outstanding direction (and also the real-life basis, which is far more fascinating than you might think at first), this film would have tanked hard. Mercifully, the film turned out to be a heartwrenching tale with some fascinating things to say about matters of faith in general and the Catholic Church in particular. Don’t let the bland trailer fool you, this isn’t a film to be missed.

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