‘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.

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