Odd couples echo throughout 'Philomena', a film directed by British veteran Stephen Frears ('The Queen') and co-written by comedian Steve Coogan – who also stars opposite another much-loved old hand: Judi Dench. Coogan is Martin Sixsmith, a resolutely hard-nosed ex-BBC journalist trying to find his feet in the early 2000s after an unhappy stint in the shadows of politics. Dench is Philomena, chalk to his cheese: she's an ageing, working-class Londoner who grew up in Ireland and whose late-life admission that she had a baby taken away from her in an convent as a young woman finds her travelling to Ireland and the US with Sixsmith, who's intent on turning her life into column inches.
Sixsmith – played with a buttoned-down reserve by Coogan, only occasionally slipping into comic mugging – is slumming it by writing a 'human-interest story' on Philomena for a midmarket tabloid. Philomena – given strength, vulnerability and wit by Dench – is not sure why, or if, she wants to uncover these ghosts in her past. We see scenes of her youth in harrowing flashbacks and the story takes us to places of deep loss and pain. Yet Frears sidesteps easy melodrama in favour of a reserve tempered by mild comedy. Some of the early contrasts between Martin and Philomena are too insistent. But 'Philomena' becomes more interesting when their individual and shared responses to their discoveries and disappointments en route turn out to be more complex than we fear they may be.
It's a terrifically moving film that has a fitting earthbound feel to it as well as a barely suppressed anger at crimes inflicted on the powerless, whether by the Catholic church or an unfeeling modern news media. It also has a sharp wit which stops it being a straight tragedy. Less successful, perhaps, is the film's insistence on debating press ethics, when, in the context of such a personal story, the behaviour of the church, past and present, and Philomena and Martin's feelings towards it, are so much more relevant and important.
But, still, 'Philomena' has important things to say about the role of religion in people's lives even when it's done them great harm, or at least done them little good. It also offers a healthy dose of cheekiness to counter the gloom, and, best of all, has a well-earned ring of complicated truth to it.