TORONTO -- The true story of a woman searching for the son that Catholic nuns forced her to relinquish shortly after his birth in 1952 wouldn't seem, on the face of it, to be a laugh riot.
And yet, "Philomena," starring Judi Dench as the mother and Steve Coogan as a reporter helping her sift through five decades of lost leads, dead ends and uncooperative church authorities, scored as much laughter as any film playing at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.
"It's strange because it's not a comedy, but it's a lot funnier than a lot of supposed comedies," says Coogan, who co-wrote the movie with Jeff Pope. "We wanted humor in there because we knew it was a tough story. I wanted it to be enjoyable to watch."
The dry interplay between Coogan and Dench sets the tone for the film. It's a classic clash of cultures. Dench's Philomena is a sweet Irish woman who still believes in God and forgiveness even after the wrongs she has suffered. Coogan's reporter is an educated, cynical atheist determined to find answers, even if he bruises feelings along the way.
"Philomena" affords Dench a showcase for her comic timing, while giving Coogan the chance to carry the drama through his character's antagonistic nature.
"She'd reach over and say, 'Get back to your comedy and keep away from my drama,' " Coogan says. "And I'd tell her, 'I'm letting you come on my turf' because she gets the biggest moments of levity."
Those moments played so big at the film's two public Toronto screenings that the audience's laughter often drowned out the next line. Standing in the back of the theater at the gala, director Stephen Frears heard it too. Asked whether he test screened the movie, he wryly responded, "Clearly not enough."
Frears did deliberately design the 97-minute "Philomena" to move at a fast pace. Not that he had a choice.
"Harvey Weinstein's got it," Frears says, referring to the film's distributor. "You've got to move quickly to humor him."
When told that several women noted they would be returning to see the movie a second time to pick up on the dialogue the laughter drowned out, Frears broke into a rare smile.
"Excellent," Frears says. "Good for business."
"Philomena" will open in limited engagements Dec. 25.