- - Thursday, November 28, 2013

The plot of “Philomena” seems preposterous. A teenage girl forced to give up her out-of-wedlock child in 1950s Catholic Ireland searches for him half a century later, only to discover he carried his own secret shame: He was a closeted homosexual in the highest ranks of the Republican Party in the U.S.

But this sensationalistic story is, at least in its broad outlines, true. And, more shocking still, it’s just one troubling tale out of the many that the era produced. In this movie based on the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith, the unparalleled Judi Dench captures the eternal sorrow of one woman who represents scores more in the United Kingdom and beyond — not to mention the unknown suffering of the children they surrendered. Yet the result is a film that ultimately feels false. The filmmakers succumbed to the temptation to focus on the “lessons” Philomena’s story holds for the rest of us at the expense of the moving — and authentic — human story itself.

Philomena has kept her secret for more than 50 years, but during a holiday season in the early 2000s decides she can bear the burden no more. She tells her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) about the little boy she bore as a teenager in a convent in Roscrea, County Tipperary. Philomena’s father had abandoned her to the nuns when the pregnancy became obvious: “He was so shamed, he told everyone I was dead.”

There, Philomena (played memorably as a teenager by feature film newbie Sophie Kennedy Clark) toiled at the Magdalene laundry alongside other girls in similar situations. “We were allowed to see our children for an hour a day. That was all.” Until one fateful day when her son, just a few years old, was given in adoption to a couple from America. Philomena never saw him again, despite repeated trips to the convent over the decades: The nuns claimed they had no idea what had become of the boy.

The 70-year-old Philomena relates this story to journalist Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay). Sixsmith’s just been sacked from his communications job in the Labour government and is looking for a story to re-launch his writing career. But he has something more serious in mind than a “human interest” story. He soon realizes, of course, that the old woman’s “sappy” story is very serious indeed.

It turns out that the nuns sold children to rich Americans looking to adopt. So “Philomena” becomes a sort of odd-couple road-trip film as the sophisticated London journalist takes the working-class ex-nurse to the States in search of her son.

Miss Dench gives a typically on-target performance, but Mr. Coogan’s many talents are wasted here. The English comedian’s overly earnest performance provides no light moments in a drama that could have used a few. His screenwriting isn’t pitch-perfect, either: No American would talk of someone’s career “whilst at the White House.”

Some reviewers have decried “Philomena” as a tract against the Catholic Church, but the title character herself is full of forgiveness, for the institution and those that people it. It’s the American part of the story that comes closest to a sermon, as we learn from his colleagues that Philomena’s homosexual son felt “uncomfortable” working for Ronald Reagan. We’re to understand that some of the Irish nuns who kept Philomena and her lost child apart forever might have had varying, even mysterious motives. But Washington, D.C., is shown only in unmistakable shades of black and white.

★★½

TITLE: “Philomena”

CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Frears; written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope based on the book by Martin Sixsmith

RATING: PG-13 on appeal for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS