Through a fluke of timing, “Philomena” — since it’s Oscar season, most people are just calling it “the Judi Dench movie” — opens in Boston theaters the same day as Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” Both are road movies and voyages of self-discovery; both feature senior citizens seeking resolution with the aid of younger characters. Both are very, very good.
The crowd-pleaser is “Philomena,” though, and I say that not to judge “Nebraska” the better or worse movie but simply to note that it’s a spikier affair, one that keeps its distance from its characters until late in the game. Payne’s film is exactly the sort of artsy, ironic confection that would be treasured by Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the upper-class journalist in “Philomena” who is hired by Dench’s title character. This is why she doesn’t initially trust him, and neither does the movie they’re in.
Instead, “Philomena” gets us to side with a plain-spoken woman as she attempts to get to the bottom of a monstrous injustice. The movie is based on a true story, and more closely than usual for this sort of thing. In the early 2000s, when she was in her 70s, Philomena Lee (Dench) opened up to her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) about the son she had given birth to in 1950s Ireland, about the Magdalene laundry in which she and other unwed teenage mothers were forced to work for years, and about the nuns who sold the girls’ babies to adoptive parents in other countries.
Appalled, the daughter contacts Martin, an experienced newspaperman who has just been bounced out of a high-level government communications job and is looking for his next big gig. Philomena’s is the sort of weepy human-interest story the journalist would normally scorn, but something about her grabs at him, and, besides, he needs the work. The reporter and the retired nurse embark on a mission to find her long-lost son, despite a wall of silence at the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, County Tipperary, and adoption records that have conveniently been lost in a fire.
There’s a lot I could tell you about where “Philomena” goes from there, but that wouldn’t be fair, since the twists and turns in this story are so astounding that they couldn’t be made up. I will say there’s a trip to America, which gives Martin and Philomena a chance to understand each other better, and it’s that relationship, with its undercurrents of trust, respect, and greater forgiveness, that’s at the heart of a movie whose emotional pull seems to grow with each new revelation.
The scandal of the Magdalene laundries, a collusion of the Irish government and Catholic Church that for 200 years imprisoned “sinning” girls — the last closed in 1996 — has been dealt with in plays, novels, and movies. Peter Mullan’s 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters” is probably the acknowledged classic on the subject. “Philomena” assumes we know the historical basics and focuses on one woman’s tragedy. Curiously, the more the pair discover about the journey of Philomena’s son — the more the colossus of institutional lies and cruelty comes into view — the more furious the callow reporter becomes and the more serene the mother. At the core of this movie is a notion of Christian charity to shame organized religion.
Coogan (“24 Hour Party People,” “Hamlet 2”) co-wrote the script and co-produced the movie and clearly sees this as a chance to move beyond his established persona as a hyperarticulate comic cad. In this he’s successful: The movie’s Martin Sixsmith is a worldly man gradually and gratefully humbled by a simple woman, and much of the more obvious comedy in “Philomena” comes from the journalist’s hoity-toity notions about art and life being debunked by an aging nurse who likes to read pulp romances.
Yet the movie steers clear of sentimentality at every turn, in part because the story’s preposterous and true, in part because director Frears (“The Queen”) is a pro who knows exactly when and when not to get soggy, and mostly because Dench walks a perfect tightrope of feeling and astringency. We’re used to Big Performances from this actress: Queen Elizabeth I; Iris Murdoch, the unbalanced teacher of “Notes on a Scandal.” What’s most shocking about Philomena is her ordinariness, and what’s ultimately most moving is her faith in that ordinariness — that the crime committed by her church and country didn’t separate her from humanity but only made her part of it.
It’s up to Martin to voice the outrage he and we feel, and “Philomena” has some highly satisfactory scenes of invective hitting its intended targets. Yet everyone here understands that’s a sideshow and that the real drama is of a woman wronged again and again and caring only about the thing that matters: her child and what became of him. “Philomena” is a tearjerker of rare honesty and craft.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.