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An utterly charming combination of road-trip movie, odd-couple comedy and heart-touching true story that will leave few dry-eyed, “Philomena” rests comfortably in the lap of the great Judi Dench. She’s one of those rare performers who completely opens herself and her character to the camera; she makes herself vulnerable, and she makes us love her. As Philomena Lee, an Irishwoman who as a teenager was forced to give up her toddler son for adoption, she presents a character of many layers: a sweet and slightly dotty naif, with a serene smile; an anguished mother who, when she looks at her sole photo of her child, seems to fade before our eyes; a woman who, we gradually learn, has an inner strength and ability to forgive that makes her more heroic than anyone else in this movie — or most others.

Briskly and wisely directed by Stephen Frears, “Philomena” begins by moving back and forth between the present-day character, lighting a candle in church and deciding abruptly to tell her grown daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) about her long-held secret, and 50 years earlier, in which young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) becomes pregnant, gives birth to Anthony in a cruel convent, and watches helplessly as the nuns send her child away to America. The daughter, astonished by the news, tries to interest journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay) in helping locate Anthony. He disapproves of human-interest stories (they’re aimed at “vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people,” he huffs) but needs the work — and, just like that, he and Philomena are off to Washington, D.C., in hopes of finding Anthony in the records there.

Coogan, best known as a comedian, plays it straight here; his snobbish Martin is horrified to find himself tethered to an unsophisticated grandmother. (“She keeps telling the hotel staff how kind they are; she must think they’re volunteers,” he notes.) But he becomes caught up in the quest, and in his gradual realization of Philomena’s unfailing goodness. Dench and Coogan become an endearing, believable duo; and as the film draws to a close on a frosty Irish afternoon, her story has become his.

Early on, an editor warns Martin that the story, in order to appeal to readers, must be “really, really happy or really, really sad.” “Philomena” is both and neither of these things; you leave it reluctantly, both saddened and joyful.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or