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'Philomena' review: Excellent travel partners

*** (out of four)

Is “Philomena” a good movie or a very good movie? Tough call. Let’s say somewhere in between.

It’s worth praising how the dramedy doesn’t appear to falsely exaggerate the true events it’s inspired by. As Martin (co-writer Steve Coogan) gets back into journalism to help Philomena (Judi Dench) track down the son whom “evil nuns” (Martin’s description, not hers) forced her to give up 50 years earlier, the film resists suggesting that the journey represented more to Martin than it actually did. This primarily is Philomena’s story, and it’s a natural crowd-pleaser.

Coogan (“The Other Guys,” “Hamlet 2”) is hilarious as always, but Martin’s dry sense of humor never comes off as irritating comic relief. He’s an atheist horrified by the church’s treatment of his subject and is frustrated that she’s not angrier. Philomena, on the other hand, wants to know anything she can about the boy whose conception resulted from a young girl knowing nothing about reproduction.

Suffice to say it’s easy to side with Martin’s shock about Philomena’s treatment.

The film flirts with breeziness and cuteness, and it would be nice to learn a little more about Martin. Still, Coogan and Dench make a fantastic team, believable in their sweet moments together without having to become best pals. She’s always watching the movie of her memory. This is a story full of heart about the weight of anger, the relief of clarity and the world sometimes just not being especially good.

Director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) avoids highlighting ironies in blunt, capital letters but also could have gone deeper. The searchers learn that Philomena’s son is affiliated with a political party that ultimately did him harm. An elderly nun preaches the sanctity of chastity without seeming to recognize that she wouldn’t be around if her parents had felt the same. The film establishes different paths—could Philomena’s son be a CEO or homeless? Will this story have a happy or a sad ending?—and allows for varied viewpoints. It also knows how tough it can be to see the other side.

The question about believing in God never seemed to allow for a short answer, Martin tells Philomena. Does she believe? Her answer couldn’t be any shorter: “Yes.”

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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