There is a potentially exploitative blockbuster at the heart of Philomena (2013), and as it unfolds we expect, at any moment, to be drawn into yet another example of cinema as propaganda. A film with the theme of abusive nuns in an Irish Catholic asylum lording over unwed mothers is an invitation for at least one audience-as-silly-putty moment, molded by hackneyed writing and line delivery. It never happens. Instead, we are treated to a sensitively written, smartly balanced drama, which never succumbs to overt sentimentality or cynicism.
Such restraint takes a collaborative effort, and Philomena benefits from the directing of Stephen Frears, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screen treatment of Martin Sixsmith’s book, along with Judi Dench’s astute performance.