AN ELDERLY woman goes looking for the baby taken from her by force by nuns.
Oh dear, you’re thinking, another sentimental sob-fest that belongs in an afternoon TV movie. But you’ve reckoned without Judi Dench as the baby-seeker and Steve Coogan out of Alan Partridge mode and being serious (sort of) as the journalist who helps her in her quest.
Inevitably, Dench is being hotly tipped for an Oscar nomination for her performance. We’d expect no less from her. Coogan, on the other hand, is surprisingly good as the political reporter, unwilling at first to do a human interest story but who warms to her as the search gets ever deeper.
He’s playing Labour advisor turned BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith in this based-on-fact story. And what an amazing tale, adding fresh twists just as you think you know where the as the story progresses.
Coogan and Jeff Pope wrote the script, achieving a good balance of drama and humour – what journalist isn’t without a quip for every occasion? – as the pair embark on their search for the son Philomena had as a young unmarked woman. It was, like many other children in the nuns care, snatched from the mother and sold to Americans.
After Philomena confesses to her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) about the child, Jane asks Sixsmith to help track down the boy. Reluctant at first, he finally agrees. The search takes them to Ireland and then the US, where his contacts made during his time reporting from Washington prove invaluable, yielding surprising results.
They’re an odd couple whose relationship develops as their road trip progresses with Dench and Coogan playing beautifully off each other. The story is remarkable enough without going for tearjerking moments or laying on the sentiment with a trowel, for which director Stephen Frears is to be commended.