Frears' tragi-comic 'Philomena' takes Venice by storm

VENICE - Stephen Frears' "Philomena" took the Venice film festival by storm on Saturday, hailed as a frontrunner for the Golden Lion award with its tragi-comic tale of a mother's search for her son.

The British film, starring Judi Dench as mother Philomena Lee and comic actor Steve Coogan as the ex-BBC journalist who helps her in her quest, drew laughs, tears and rounds of spontaneous applause.

Frears, director of the award-winning "The Queen", was set to take to the red carpet along with Dench and Coogan later Saturday.

Based on the true story recounted in Martin Sixsmith's 2009 book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee", the film tells the tale of a teenage girl who falls pregnant in Ireland in 1952 and is packed off to a convent.

Her baby son is given up for adoption and all trace of him is lost.

Ex-journalist Sixsmith, at a loose end after being sacked from his role as a government spin doctor, decides to help, sparking an unlikely alliance between an Oxbridge wise-cracker and a feisty Irish pensioner.

Dench, known by many for her role as the head of the British secret intelligence service "M" in the James Bond films, gives a compelling performance of a woman grappling with love, loss and her Roman Catholic faith.

Coogan, who worked on the screenplay with Jeff Pope, captures a delicate balance between irony and compassion, ribbing the Church and expressing all the outrage against the "evil" nuns that Philomena herself is unable to feel.

Frears said the real Philomena visited the set during shooting and described her as "a magnificent woman with no self-pity, who... despite all the injustices she has suffered still retains her religious faith".