There was a time when the phrase "directed by Stephen Frears" promised (to me, anyway), if not necessarily a film that was going to be life-changing in its excellence and ingenuity, then at least one which would tell a fine story with solidity and clean, steady filmmaking skill. His movies were like dress slacks: crisp, unsurprising, reliable, and necessary for adult life.

His latest, Philomena, isn't not those things, exactly, though Frear's filmmaking skills, at any rate, aren't quite as solid and clean as they used to be: the first act is a dodgy mess of half-expressed exposition and flashbacks used in the laziest, most invasive way. Perhaps these problems stem more from Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope's screenplay, adapted from the nonfiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, though certainly the way that Frears treats the flashbacks (in showy, super-grainy footage) exacerbates, rather than dampens, the degree to which they're at odds with every other aspect of the movie.

The true story, at any rate, is pretty impressive: having recently been ousted from a government job under a cloud of disgrace - inapt words about "burying" an unfavorable story during the 9/11 media cycle figured heavily - Sixsmith (played in the film by Coogan) needed to find something to do with himself and his prestigious career as reporter and historian. That something ended up being a dreaded "human interest story", when he crossed paths with Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irish senior citizen who finally decided to hunt for her long-lost son on the event of his 50th birthday. Back in the '60s, Philomena (played at this age by Sophie Kennedy Clark) had been obliged to seek refuge in a convent that acted as a magnet for Girls In Trouble, though far from being a kindly font of good Christian charity, this was a place where the Church turned young women into borderline-slaves while selling their babies off to well-to-do American families. And that's exactly what happened to young Anthony Lee bought by a frigid pair of Yanks while Philomena watched helplessly from an upstairs window.

Sixsmith, at first with great reluctance, and later with a good deal of affection for the determined but foggy old woman, uses his contacts to hunt down one unsuccessful lead after another, running into an especially angry stone wall in the form of the Church's refusal to discuss the matter, though eventually enough lucky breaks go his way that he's able to determine the identity of the adopting family. And from there it takes barely a moment to learn that Anthony grew up to become someone shockingly prominent in American politics, but going any more into it than that would be to spoil some of the things that Philomena intends to surprise us. Since I'm not going to try and talk anyone down from seeing what I imagine will be Judi Dench's final lead role, I will allow the film to maintain its secrets.

Two things chiefly present themselves about Philomena, and neither one is really very good. The first is that it has no idea whatsoever what tone it wants to adopt towards its subject matter, and even less towards the character of Philomena, who is variously played as a noble martyr, a steely fighter, a daft old lady who needs to be taken care of, and a comic old spitfire who says saucy things from out of nowhere. This, in and of itself, is not a problem, and could readily be construed as a strength, except Frears either isn't aware that it's happening, or doesn't have any idea what to do with it, and instead of the shifting tones building up some kind of momentum that, as the film progresses, reveals more and more depth and truth to the character, they simply hopscotch about arbitrarily. Now we're serious; now we're wacky; now we're sad. There's no focus to it, except to let Dench play the biggest range of modes possible (it's impossible to overstate how much the film feels like an excuse to let Dench do her thing), and this she absolutely does, though if I had to choose between oohing at her versatility and actually watching her rein herself and focus with sharklike intensity on a consistent and complete character as she did seven long years ago in Notes on a Scandal - her last truly great performance - I would surely pick the latter.

The other thing that really defines Philomena as the profoundest kind of middlebrow Oscarbait is a flaw it has in common with so many of what we might call "historical message pictures", those which are infuriated and passionate and ready to argue about issues that are no longer alive and about which no member of its audience is likely to disagree with its argument. That is to say, Philomena presents a situation in which the Magdalen laundries, and the grotesque system of abuses and child racketeering that the Catholic Church indulged in for two centures are shown to be brutal and rough on the mothers and children both. Having presented the situation, the film then contents itself with sitting back and being Righteous, rather than actually using the medium to do anything to grapple with the reality it has just discussed. Watching the film Philomena raises issues, sure, but they're the same issues that reading an op-ed could raise; hell, I can raise those issues right now in my review. What the Catholic Church did at those convents was disgusting and abusive, and it is a black mark yet to be fully redressed. There, I just communicated the exact intellectual experience of Philomena, and I did it in ten seconds, and I'm not charging you $10 for the privilege.

All that leaves, then, is Coogan and Dench; they are both very good, and it's a surprising register to see Coogan so personally invested in a drama with sardonic comic overtones rather than a properly-speaking "comedy", though between this and Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, I have no doubt which one shows the actor off to better effect. And I've talked a little bit about Dench, but there's really only a little bit to say: she's capably, enjoyable playing a role that a lot of actresses could have played, most of them not quite as well, and in the process she's doing absolutely nothing that surprises anybody who's seen more than one or two of her performances ever. It's an effective star turn, in that respect, but not an especially energizing one, and Philomena is written too vaguely for Dench to more than make her fun to watch. And even then she's the best thing about a movie whose arguments, though fiery, are a little simple, whose cinematic techniques are flat and obvious, and whose purpose for existing is too obviously yoked the allure of little golden men.