Philomena is, in some ways, a rather rosily cheeked flip side piece to 2002's The Magdalene Sisters. Like that film, it centers around a mystery wrought by the mistreatment of young women housed in abbeys (or asylums, as they were sometimes referred to) in 1950s Ireland run by the Catholic Church. Philomena Lee (Dench) was one of them, and, as a teenager, was forced to give her son up for adoption. After keeping the secret for much of her adult life, suddenly confides to her daughter, who, shocked by the news, mentions the secret to fallen journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) in a chance meeting. Sixsmith, recently told he should pick up a "human interest" story to re-up his profile decides to meet with Philomena. Soon, the jaded, critical journalist and the devout, optimistic Philomena are a regular odd couple on a fact-finding jaunt through Ireland to DC and back again.
The film is based on the real-life Sixsmith's book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and though the twists, turns, and curious intersections of Lee's search for her son are at times as harrowing as they are fascinating, the movie is clever enough to know that while we may stay for the outcome, we've come for the characters. Coogan and Jeff Pope have crafted an intelligent script from Sixsmith's account, and Philomena locates the real human interest in an already jarring human interest story. Dench is brilliantly cast, and sets aside some of her steely dramatic persona to become the bubbly, enthusiastic type of woman who praises the rote details of a romance novel, compliments people constantly, and refuses to speak an ill-word of the nuns responsible for her tragedy. She's so kindly and prone to distraction that, by comparison, Coogan's comic timing is subverted and he becomes a sort of broken straight-man. The two work surprisingly well together as cynic and eternal optimist, and by the film's conclusion it is perhaps their dynamic that resonates as the most touching aspect of the story. There's something surprisingly sweet about what unfolds throughout Philomena that seems to run counter and serve as a balm to the dark truths lurking forever beneath the surface, and ultimately, the film is most notable for sharing its heroine's staunch refusal to be brought down. As Philomena herself is not prone to dramatics, the film does not wish to paint her as being so, or to present her in any way that would inspire pity where she might not want it. So, it is a layered tale that finds its heart in the story that results from the first story, and which marries the comic and the tragic in the most humble of hosts.