Not so Philomena. It isn't played for straight up laughs and it isn't really a comedy but the writing and the acting are far more lighthearted than the subject matter suggests. In fact, no one who has seen the previews will expect anything dire or harsh.
It is a tribute to Judy Dench that this seems like an easy role for her. She is so effortless, seems so real as the simple, pleasant, non-judgemental Irishwoman that you almost don't see it as a performance. She also gets the bulk of the laughs.
Philomena is a mostly cheerful woman who has harbored this one great secret, this one great regret. she finally tells her daughter and shows her the single photo she has of her son. The daughter then has a chance run in that sets things in motion.
That run-in is with Martin Sixsmith, the cashiered director of communications for a government department under Tony Blair. Philomena's daughter is working at a party he attends.
Sixsmith, a former journalist, is shown as a little prickly. He is rude and occasionally snaps at people. If you focus on him as the lead there seem to be some reasons to scratch your head; why does he take on the story he initially dismisses? Is one inconclusive conversation with his wife what really did it?
Sixsmith, played ably by Steve Coogan, who also wrote the screenplay, isn't a bad sort though and, to the movie's credit he doesn't "change his ways" after meeting and spending time with the cheery, forgiving Philomena.
Stephen Frears certainly can make a movie. You hear about actors who would be entertaining reading the phone book; Frears would make an interesting movie with a script based on the phone book. This may not be The Grifters or Prick Up Your Ears but it is a memorable film nonetheless. Its sense of humanity, its humor and how shows "issues" movies often pretend to grapple with as ultimately meaningless. The movie does not try to move outside the bounds of the real story. It does not try to be big--and that is why it works.
Great acting and a good screenplay don't hurt of course.