Philomena ★★★★½

Good-natured, gentle, and enlivened with a solid sense of humor, Stephen Frears' "Philomena" is a light-toned drama that is made completely engrossing by its true-to-life narrative and outstanding lead performances. Following a journalist's investigation into the whereabouts of a woman's adopted child, the film details a remarkable journey made by unlikely compatriots. It is a recognizable odyssey told with character-based humor and authentic emotion.

Visualized with amber-hued clarity, Frears builds his film with a focus on his two disparate protagonists. The two, from different walks of life, form on easy bond, but Frears never plays up that bond for high level drama or its potential conflicts. It is a refreshing, somewhat restrained friendship that surrounds the film's ready-made, high-volume drama of a mother searching for her son.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are excellent in their roles. Generally calm but emotionally potent, the two inhabit their characters with humor and warmth. Both character are made magnetic by their actors. There is nothing overstated or showy, but the performances are impactful.

Not being overstated but, at the same time, being impactful is an apt descriptor for "Philomena" itself. The film resists being maudlin, but it is easily moving. It avoids heating up its drama, but that drama is naturally compelling. "Philomena" does not announce its themes loudly, but they bubble clearly to the surface. The film offers, altogether, a controlled yet rich and emotionally vibrant experience. It is a completely appealing piece of work.

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