VIDEO: This week’s new films reviewed

Dame Judi Dench searches for the son she was forced to give up decades ago in the Oscar-tipped true story of Philomena

PHILOMENA (12A)

Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

As she approaches her 79th birthday, national treasure Dame Judi Dench looks certain to be gifted a seventh Oscar nomination for her tour-de-force portrayal of a guilt-stricken mother in Philomena.

It’s a compelling performance of deep emotion based on a true story that deftly tugs the heartstrings without resorting to emotional manipulation or cloying sentiment.

Dench is complemented by Steve Coogan as a cynical and world-weary journalist, who initially scoffs at the suggestion that he should pen an article about the matriarch and her heartbreaking ordeal.

“Human interest stories are a euphemism for stories about weak-minded, ignorant people,” he proclaims dismissively.

The tender and unexpectedly touching relationship that forms between these two characters from different generations and backgrounds provides Stephen Frears’ uplifting film with its emotional thrust, as the search for answers moves between continents.

Coogan’s script, co-written by Jeff Pope, is lean and peppered with earthy humour, whether it be the much-abused heroine reliving the ecstasy of her first sexual experience or her encouraging the journalist to jump into the back seat of a rental car.

“There’s plenty of room. It’s a Vauxhall Cavalier,” she trills.

The incredible road trip begins when Jane Lee (Anna Maxwell Martin) discovers her mother Philomena (Dench) fell pregnant as a teenager in 1952 Ireland and was forced to give up the baby to the sisters at Roscrea Abbey.

Jane pitches the story to former Labour advisor turned BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan).

After a reality check from his wife Kate (Simone Lahbib), Martin agrees to help Philomena track down her boy.

“I’d like to know if he thought of me,” Philomena tells Martin. “I’ve thought of him every day.”

Using his connections, Martin takes Philomena to Washington DC to sift through official documents, hoping for a breakthrough to reunite the old woman with the son she never wanted to give up.

Throughout, Philomena clings to her faith, lighting a candle for her child.

However, Martin cannot conceal his contempt for religion, telling Philomena, “It’s the Catholic Church that should be going to confession, not you!”

Directed with a light and assured touch by Frears, Philomena celebrates the power of hope to heal old wounds.

Dench is magnificent and Coogan jettisons most of his Alan Partridge tics in support, gradually warming to Philomena and her upbeat outlook on life.

“Just because you’re in first class doesn’t mean you’re a first class person,” she tells him during a long haul flight in economy class.

Tears flow freely as the eponymous heroine discovers the fate of her boy, seizing upon every nugget of information, no matter how banal, as if she had just won the lottery.

We certainly strike it very lucky with Frears’s wonderful picture.

RATING: 8.5/10

THOR: THE DARK WORLD (12A)

As big and muscular as its titular hammer-swinging hunk, and equally short on sparkling repartee, Thor: The Dark World is a sequel-by-numbers that slots neatly into the ever-expanding Marvel Comics universe.

There are verbal references to yesteryear’s The Avengers, a cameo by one of Thor’s fellow superheroes and a teaser during the end credits that introduces The Collector (Benicio Del Toro), who figures prominently in next summer’s Guardians Of The Galaxy.

If nothing else – and there isn’t much else – Alan Taylor’s film is a masterclass in brand recognition.

The Dark World squanders the strongest actors, including Tom Hiddleston as arch-villain Loki, in order to focus on the miasma of slick digital effects.

Screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley bamboozle us with their cod-science, spinning a fantastical yarn about an alignment of worlds every 5,000 years which allows “an ancient darkness to strike”.

The Dark Elves of Svartalfheim led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and second-in-command Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) intend to unleash a fluid called the Aether, which will plunge the Nine Realms into eternal darkness.

Throwing a spanner in the works, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has been exposed to the swirling gelatinous goo, which now courses through her veins.

Thus, Malekith and his hench-elves launch an assault on Asgard, where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has concealed Jane in the hope that his father Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins) can extract the Aether from his sweetheart.

When that glimmer of hope is snuffed out, the crown prince of Asgard turns to his nefarious adoptive brother, Loki (Hiddleston), for help.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Jane’s mentor Dr Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), colleague Darcy (Kat Dennings) and intern Ian (Jonathan Howard) prepare for Armageddon as realms collide with cataclysmic consequences.

Thor: The Dark World ricochets noisily between action, comedy and romance, punctuating set pieces with deadpan humour, like when Thor accidentally destroys an ancient statue of Bor and Loki quips, “Well done, you just decapitated your grandfather!”

A couple of plot twists, including the miraculous resurrection of one key character, cause almost as much head-scratching as the use of wormholes to travel between the Nine Realms.

Hemsworth swings his hammer with gusto but there’s no obvious sexual chemistry with Portman and Eccleston’s chief villain doesn’t have sufficient screen time to become more than a minor irritation.

Considering the hundreds of hours and millions of dollars invested in the sequel, it’s depressing that small details have been overlooked.

When Thor crashes on to the platform of Charing Cross Underground station and asks a commuter, “How do I get to Greenwich?”, she chirps, “Take this train, three stops.”

Evidently, the passenger is dazzled by the beefcake’s flowing locks and rippling chest because the Northern Line doesn’t pass anywhere near his intended destination.

Mind the plot gap.

RATING: 5/10

THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA (15)

Tom Elkins returns to the director’s chair for this lacklustre companion piece to his 2009 supernatural horror, which chronicled the true story of one family’s brush with malevolent forces.

The Haunting In Connecticut 2 also relies on spooky documented fact, relating the ghoulish goings-on in a station master’s house in Pine Mountain, Georgia, as seen through the eyes of two women and a little girl, who are cursed with the ability to see ghosts.

David Coggeshall’s script trades in hoary cliches.

When the winsome child stares at her ramshackle home and asks, “Who lived here before?” and her mother cheerfully replies, “Nobody honey. That’s why the bank gave us such a good deal,” the stench of impending doom is overpowering.

Banks offer good deals when properties conceal dark, dangerous secrets.

When the same laughably naive parent ignores her daughter’s tearful pleas to move house – “The bad man saw me. Now he’s coming...” – we count down the tedious minutes before demonic spectres hold the girl hostage and mommie dearest reluctantly ventures to the dark side to reunite her fractured clan.

Mild scares, which take the form of shadowy figures moving unseen behind protagonists, are repetitive and unlikely to jolt audiences out of a soporific stupor.

It’s June 1993 and Lisa Wyrick (Abigail Spencer) and her husband Andy (Chad Michael Murray) move into a remote house with their cherubic daughter, Heidi (Emily Alyn Lind).

Lisa’s no-good sister Joyce (Katee Sackhoff) arrives soon after, looking for a place to live after her romance with an alcoholic married man turns sour.

Joyce takes up residence in an old trailer close to the house and helps Heidi to make sense of strange visions.

“You were born with a veil,” Joyce tells her cherubic niece, “It means that sometimes you can sense things other people can’t.”

The ‘things’ in question are the house’s previous owner, Mr Gordy (Grant James), and the spirits of slaves, who were hidden from harm in an underground railroad that runs beneath the property.

A visit from a local holy man (Lance E Nichols) and a blind lady (Cicely Tyson) tip us off that something wicked festers in the subterranean gloom and when little Heidi tumbles down a hole, the evil is unleashed.

Ghosts Of Georgia should have been exorcised straight to DVD rather than haunting multiplexes.

Large portions of the film take place in darkness, in part to conceal workmanlike special effects.

Lind cries and whimpers up a storm – she is livelier than her older co-stars, who go through the motions, staring wide-eyed as doors blow open of their own accord.

“Your momma gets feelings she doesn’t much care for,” Joyce tells Heidi at one point.

We feel the same about Elkins’s film.

RATING: 4/10