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'Philomena' is elevated by actors Judi Dench and Steve Coogan

'Philomena' stars Dench as a woman searching for the son she gave up for adoption and Coogan as the journalist writing a story about her.

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Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) are going the same way – in search of her long-lost child – in ‘Philomena.’

The Weinstein Company/AP

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The first thing you have to overcome while watching “Philomena” is the spectacle of Judi Dench playing a quietly reserved Irish woman who laps up trashy romance novels and gets her kicks watching “Big Momma’s House.”

But have no fear: Dench is such a consummate actress that Philomena’s proclivities soon appear perfectly natural. Just because Dench is great at playing smart doesn’t mean she can’t also play not-so-smart. As a matter of fact, the actress’s intelligence in this regard is probably an asset. (Judy Holliday, the quintessential dumb blonde of “Born Yesterday,” was reportedly a brainiac). Actually, Philomena Lee, although the movie sometimes confers upon her a slight condescension, isn’t all that stupid, just incurious. She lives a homespun, circumscribed life – except for one thing. Fifty years earlier, after becoming pregnant following a youthful indiscretion, she was forced by her parents into a convent, where she was worked like a packhorse and allowed to see her baby boy for just one hour each day. Three years later the baby was sold to an American couple, and forever after not a day has gone by without Philomena wondering what became of him.

Her daughter, upon learning of this long-held secret, reaches out to Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former BBC reporter and government spokesman (i.e., spin doctor) who sees Philomena’s story as his human-interest ticket back into journalism.

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