If it wasn’t a universally agreed upon opinion before, Philomena should end all discussion about how great an actor Judi Dench is. As Philomena Lee, an unassuming Irish woman who enlists the help of an out-of-work journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), to find the son she gave up to the Catholic church when he was a toddler, Dench is powerful. Coogan is great too, though you get the feeling he’s getting a boost from Dench simply because she’s that good. Their chemistry drives the movie, which is at its best when the two of them are engaged in some conversation, whether it’s about the plot of the romance novel Lee is reading or about whether God is real or loving. This is a fascinating story, but director Stephen Frears’s (High Fidelity, The Queen) movie is unambitious enough that you wonder whether or not you should have just read the book. But Dench and Coogan as an odd couple are worth an hour and a half of your time.
Quicker take: Come for the awards attention, stay for the stars.