Over the past three decades, few directors have run up a better batting average than Stephen Frears . . . or gained less credit for doing it; craft & range getting short critical shrift these days; even critical suspicion. That said, this undoubted success does feel a bit thin at times, betraying its provenance as a magazine feature that’s been puffed up to book length. A fact-inspired story, sadly familiar, about Irish Catholic practices & prudery involving unwed mothers, forced labor, and bartered babies. With lovely, often very funny playing by co-writer/co-producer Steve Coogan as the reporter, and by Judi Dench who makes Philomena as shrewd & blunt as she is trusting & naive. Any loss in narrative stride when the search for her long-lost son falls into Coogan’s laptop is overcome by the decency & emotion of its double climax of discovery & confrontation. It provides an honest emotional kick in answering the film’s (and a film-goer’s) prayers.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Shocking as this is, and shocking as the current priestly sex scandals are, any internet search will bring up noxious rationales & defenders by various apologists for the church. Suffice it to say, Philomena’s story is entirely believable even when you can see it being nudged into digestible form.
DOUBLE-BILL: For less benevolent confirmation on Irish-Catholic practices for ‘fallen women,’ see THE MAGDALENE SISTERS/’02.