Location: Philadelphia , PA
Venue: Ritz Five
[Grade: B] It's usually easy to tell when a movie is dinging its own awards-season bell, but in the case of genteel director Stephen Frears' latest, that bell has been replaced with a gong. Philomena, based on British writer Martin Sixsmith's 2009 nonfiction heartbreaker, is not exactly subtle in this regard — cynics might diagnose the twinkle in Judi Dench's eye as the covetous glare off an Oscar statuette. But only the most heartless will find zero emotion in this true story bolstered by earnest performances. In the early '50s, when Irish teenager Philomena Lee (played later in life by Dench) finds herself with child, she turns to a remote convent, where her sin is shrouded. For decades, she hides knowledge of the baby, who was given up for adoption against her wishes, quietly searching for him with no luck. Then she becomes acquainted with sneering journalist Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), recently sacked from a cushy position, and convinces him to organize a new investigation. What transpires is essentially a parent-friendly road-trip film, with Sixsmith's jaded atheism going round for round with his subject's simple tastes and guilt-soaked faith. While criss crossing the gorgeous Irish countryside to butter up bitter nuns for clues, they have the one-on-one time to break bread over multiple subjects, most of them rooted in deep religious differences. Traveling to America to follow up on a pro-mising lead furthers the fish-out-of-water antics, dropping folksy Philomena into ordinary situations she finds extraordinary. These are the moments Frears lays it on thickest, coaxing Dench to kick Philomena's adage output into overdrive. Still, it's difficult to discredit the genuine warmth the director develops between this broken mother and her reluctant surrogate son. It's a sentimental affair, but it can't be called insincere.