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Movie Review: "Philomena"

Comstock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Based on Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty-Year Search, British comedian Steve Coogan stars in Philomena as Sixsmith, a former journalist sacked from his job as a flack for the British government. 

Licking his wounds while trying to decide whether or not he should write that Russian history novel he’s been flirting with, Sixsmith toys with the idea of getting back into journalism.  A chance meeting at a party with the daughter of a woman named Philomena changes his life.

Philomena, played by the incomparable Judi Dench, is an ordinary woman from Limerick, Ireland, who was coerced by nuns to give up her son Anthony for adoption 50 years ago, when she was a teenager.  Sixsmith and Philomena meet, and soon begin the search for Anthony.

Coogan, who obtained the rights to the book after reading about Sixsmith and Lee in the news, wrote the screenplay.  It is, of course, a departure for the man who's famous in his home country for playing Alan Partridge, an outrageously superficial radio and TV presenter, among other comedic roles.  When you see Coogan here, you'll wonder why he didn't turn to drama sooner.  The undercurrent of dry, sardonic wit he brings to the role adds dimension to the erudite, though somewhat arrogant, Sixsmith.

Of course, you could argue that Dame Judi Dench will bring the best performance out of any actor.  Then again, rising to her performance level is an achievement few actors can claim, and yet here, Coogan gets the job done.  As the title character, Dench conveys vulnerability and regret as well, if not better, than any actor ever has.  This is a vintage performance that most certainly will bring you to tears.

In Philomena, Dench and Coogan are an odd couple and a fascinating character study in a story that shocks, surprises, aggravates and, ultimately, thoroughly satisfies.  Dench deserves to be in this year’s Oscar conversation and, at the very least, Coogan deserves a nod for best adapted screenplay. 

Four-and-a-half out of five stars.

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ABC News Radio