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Movie Review: Have faith in Dench for motherhood tale

‘Philomena’ *** 1/2

For a significant portion of the moviegoing public, the words “Judi Dench” are enough to send them straight to the closest theater where one of her films might be playing. And for good reason: At 78, the British actress has become an international treasure, able to play steely, formidable characters with as much ease as cozier, more grandmotherly roles.

All those qualities can be glimpsed in “Philomena,” in which Dench plays the title character, a woman who, as a pregnant teenager in 1950s Ireland, was forced to give her young son up for adoption after giving birth to him in a Catholic abbey. As the soft-spoken, slightly frumpy Philomena Lee, Dench delivers one of her most recessive, unprepossessing performances yet. But that signature brand of Dench tungsten glints through as Philomena embarks on a search for her now-middle-aged son and debates the tenets of her faith with the skeptical journalist chronicling her journey.

That ink-stained wretch, Martin Sixsmith, is winningly played by British comic actor Steve Coogan, who has adapted Sixsmith’s book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” with a tone-perfect mix of acerbity and tenderness. As Martin and Philomena trundle along on a picaresque voyage that starts in 2004 and takes them from rural Ireland to Washington, his mordant asides – as often as not having to do with theology and organized religion – consistently fly over Philomena’s head.

But the modest, provincial Philomena, whose steadfast faith Martin condescendingly equates with her taste in lowbrow romance novels, tends to get the last word.

If Philomena’s devotion is admirable, the blind eye she turns to the nuns who took her child is less understandable, and Martin serves as an outraged audience surrogate as he reacts to an appalling revelation midway through the film.

At its core, this clever, wrenching, profound story underscores the tenacity of faith in the face of unfathomable cruelty.