‘Philomena’ earns its tears honestly

A heart-rending true story won’t get you everywhere in movies, but it can really help. And “Philomena,” based on the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by journalist and onetime UK government spokesman Martin Sixsmith, has a devastating tale to tell.

The film begins with Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan, late of “The Trip”), a brittle Oxbridge type, newly out of a job and lowering himself to investigate a human-interest story. That’s how he meets Philomena (Judi Dench), an Irish lady with the kinds of unanswered questions that perhaps only a reporter could hunt down.

As a teenager in the 1950s, Philomena got pregnant, was taken in by a Catholic convent to hide her sin, and gave birth there.

She remained at the convent as unpaid labor, and her little boy was taken away at age 3, never to be seen or heard from again.

She’s like to know what happened. And so — despite his initial frostiness — would Sixsmith, whose outrage increases the more he learns.

What emerged is a matter of record now, but if you don’t know the story it will increase the movie’s effectiveness, so we’ll hold off on the revelations — except to say that there are some doozies.

The temptation to make this saga an odd-couple pairing between Sixsmith and Philomena has not been entirely resisted, and this leads to the film’s soggiest moments, including the caricaturing of her naivete — which, of course, is shown to be superior to Sixsmith’s worldliness, as you knew it would be.

That stuff makes “Phil-omena” seem, at times, like an awards-season offering made under the savvy hand of producer and Oscar-monger Harvey Weinstein. Which, partly, it is.

Maybe it’s Coogan’s acerbic personality (he scripted, with Jeff Pope), or director Stephen Frears’ unpretentious take on the material, but “Philomena” generally succeeds in distinguishing itself from the average weepie. The calm roll-out is effective, Coogan’s performance is shrewd, and any time the camera gets near the convent, the Irish chill is almost palpable.

Three supporting performances supply an index of the lingering damage: Sophie Kennedy Clark is touching as the young Philomena, British stage legend Barbara Jefford is monstrous as the severest nun, and Mare Winningham — in maybe five minutes of screen time — absolutely crushes it as an American woman with connections to the case. They keep the movie honest, as it should be.

“Philomena” (3 stars)

A heart-rending true story fuels this tale of a journalist (Steve Coogan) helping an Irish woman (Judi Dench) locate the whereabouts of a child taken from her by a convent in Ireland decades earlier. Director Stephen Frears doesn’t slip the temptation to make this an odd-couple pairing, but the movie manages to keep itself honest.

Rated: PG-13 for language, subject matter.

Showing: Various area theaters.

More in Life

New documentary chronicles Obama’s last year in White House

“The Final Year” doesn’t paint the administration in rosy colors, but it isn’t too critical either.

‘Forever My Girl’ takes a page from the Nicholas Sparks genre

The film based on a novel by Heidi McLaughlin is a well-worn tale of lost love and redemption.

Curries continues home-cooked Indian cuisine at new location

The restaurant, now located on Evergreen Way, also puts an Indian spin on Northwest cooking.

International guitar tour led by Lulo Reinhardt stops in Edmonds

International Guitar Night, now in its 18th year, is Jan. 24 at the Edmonds Center for the Arts.

Beer of the Week: Scuttlebutt’s Night Circus

The Everett brewery’s head brewer had nightmares trying to dial in its new coffee and coconut ale.

Viognier: French white grape gaining foothold in Washington

Viognier, the noble white grape of the northern Rhône Valley of France,… Continue reading

The latest on Snohomish County’s breweries, wineries and distilleries.

recreated one of those old recipes, brewing Tennant’s 1954 Gold Label Barleywine

New Cascadia Art Museum exhibit showcases mid-century designs

The exhibition includes ceramics, furniture, clothing, sculpture and jewelry from 1948 to 1966.

This beefy ex-cop has a delicate hobby: intricate paper-cut art

You can see Tom Sacco’s creations at the upcoming Everett Art Walk.

Most Read