"Philomena" is a deeply pleasant movie.
That's a weird thing to write when you consider that it's about an elderly Irish woman (Judi Dench) searching for the long-lost son who was taken from her while she lived in a convent decades earlier.
Yet it's an accurate way to frame Stephen Frears' picture, which finds Dench's Philomena Lee and Steve Coogan's journalist Martin Sixsmith on a quest to unpack the mystery of what happened to her son Anthony.
This is a remarkable story rendered in easily-digestible, crowd-pleasing fashion by Frears and Coogan (the latter of whom co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope). It's a road trip movie with an unlikely pair bonding as Philomena seeks understanding and Martin tries to move past a frustrating professional period.
Frears gives way to his actors, relying on close-ups to reveal the depths behind Dench's luminescent eyes and Coogan's sensitive supporting act. The emotions are wholly understated, enhanced with cloudy skies, cold rooms and flashbacks rendered as Philomena's memories and in Super 8 home movies.
Reflecting its forgiving protagonist, the movie is temperate when you're hoping for passionate outrage. The refined quiet becomes distancing; it's hard not to be lulled into a sense of serenity that's rather off-putting given the subject. But any movie that lets you spend an hour-and-a-half with these actors isn't a total loss.