Starring Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Anna Maxwell Martin, Barbara Jefford, Sophie Kennedy Clark; directed by Stephen Frears; 95 minutes; PG-13 for profanity, thematic elements and sexual references; A-

For a significant portion of the movie?going 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 son up for adoption after giving birth to him in a Catholic abbey.

Dench delivers one of her most recessive, unprepossessing performances yet as the soft-spoken, slightly frumpy Philomena Lee, who sets off on a search for her now-middle-aged son and debates the tenets of her faith with Martin Sixsmith, the skeptical journalist chronicling her journey. British comic actor Steve Coogan plays the ink-stained wretch with a tone-perfect mix of acerbity and tenderness.

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 a suitably outraged audience surrogate as he reacts to an appalling revelation midway through the film. The depredations of the abbeys where Philomena and her contemporaries were housed were searingly represented in Peter Mullan's shattering 2002 drama, "The Magdalene Sisters." Director Stephen Frears doesn't revisit those horrors but examines their equally sadistic aftermath, in which human lives were commodified much like the religious relics sold in the abbey's front vestibule.

When Philomena and Martin arrive in Washington, the film takes on fascinating added meaning, obliquely reminding the audience of an era when homosexuality was the stuff of closeted stigma, a time that may seem as antediluvian to some audience members as the shame of an unwed mother in the 1950s.

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

Evil may be good story-wise, as Martin notes, but virtue, at its most tested and tempered, is even better.

Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post