As her son’s 50th birthday approaches, devout Irish Catholic Philomena (Judi Dench, in one of those performances people talk about all year) begins to feel melancholy. She doesn’t know her son, it seems, as she was one of the Magdalene Girls, the indentured teens put into service by convent nuns who used their labor and, it turns out, sold their children to rich Americans.

By chance, Philomena meets up with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay), a cynical, disgraced BBC reporter looking for a project to distract him. He agrees to take on this human interest story — what he calls journalism written for “vulnerable, ignorant people” — and to his surprise, and ours, is transformed by it.

Philomena is one of the slyest movies of the year, one that lulls you into expecting a dopey family charmer and forces you to cry, gasp and shake your fist in anger. Director Stephen Frears specializes in outsider stories that take a jaundiced look at powerful institutions, and he’s done a masterful job here, modulating the perpetually unexpected turns the screenplay takes without becoming saccharine. (It’s a road movie with elements of Chinatown thrown in, if you can believe it.)

The gay subplot comes as a surprise, but it’s just one of many in Philomena that keep you constantly off-balance. Oh, and it is a charmer as well. Well played.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Four stars. Opens Wednesday at Landmark’s Magnolia Theater.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 22, 2013.