'A human interest story? I don't do those."
So declares Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the haughty British newsman, a veteran political journalist and government spokesman who has just been fired and is looking for work.
But the tear-stained tale of a 70-something Irish woman forced to give her child up for adoption when she was an unwed teen confined to a convent - and who now, in her sunset years, wants to find her son? No thank you very much.
Of course, in Philomena - a surprisingly tough and tender tale from the steady hand of director Stephen Frears - Martin grudgingly agrees to hear the woman out. Philomena (Judi Dench) is everything Martin is not: simple, unassuming, with a worldview full of tolerance and even awe. How, given the cruelty she faced at the hands of the sisters at the Roscrea Abbey, can she possibly be so bright-eyed, so warmhearted? Martin, Oxbridge-schooled, steeped in cynicism, cannot believe this woman, a retired nurse.
Let the odd-couple journey of discovery - for both of them - begin.
Based on the real Sixsmith's book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and deftly adapted by Coogan and Jeff Pope, Philomena is a true story that takes unexpected, unusually poignant turns.
Coogan, who took a different kind of journey in the uproarious road movie The Trip (a sequel is due next year!), plays an acerbic sidekick to Dench's title character. As they visit the Irish convent where Philomena did hard labor as a teenager, banished from her family, and then, as they travel to Washington, D.C., you can see Martin turn from detached reporter to someone deeply invested in this woman's quest.
Coogan's performance is understated, watchful, his jokester reflexes in check (mostly - there is still fun to be had). As he and Philomena pursue their leads, both promising and not, we see Martin assessing her, gauging her reactions, hovering protectively.
For her part, Dench is just hopelessly inspiring. She plays Philomena with grace, with humor, with a befuddled squint that can suddenly turn into a piercing, knowing gaze. Her innocent interrogations of bellhops, cooks, and passers-by drive Martin up a wall, to comic effect - but also have the effect of forcing him to look at the world differently, with a degree of acceptance he is unaccustomed to.
The Catholic Church does not come off well in Philomena, but then, what else is new? And the film isn't so much an indictment of institutional unkindness as it is a story of resilience, resolution - and human kindness.
Perfect for the holidays.
(out of four stars)
Directed by Stephen Frears. With Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters