We're all recovering from some type of trauma. The trauma of leaving home, the trauma of working, the trauma of existing. But for Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), her form of suffering was (and is) the loss of her son, Anthony--renamed to Michael upon being adopted and taken to America (Sean Mahon). After giving birth to him as a teenage girl outside of wedlock, Philomena was forced into a convent where Catholic nuns told her to sign her rights away as a parent. Fifty years later, she still hasn't stopped thinking of Anthony.
Enter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who relishes any chance to play a bit of an asshole), a Labour party advisor recently dismissed from his position after being accused of attempting to "bury" information in the wake of 9/11. With no job on the horizon and a largely ostracizing interest in Russian history, Sixsmith grudgingly agrees to write a human interest story brought to his attention by a server at a party. The server turns out to be the daughter of Philomena, who finally confessed to her that she had a son fifty years earlier. Martin pitches the story to an editor friend, who is interested enough to foot the bill for him and Philomena to go to America to look at any existing records for Anthony Lee.
The disparate natures of Martin and Philomena become even more apparent while they travel together, with Philomena stopping at the nearest church for confession and Martin rolling his eyes over the ridiculousness of believing in God. Her ardent reading of romance novels and reciting the plots to Martin also wear on his nerves, and yet there is a certain affinity for the old woman he can't explain. Upon learning that her son was a well-respected advisor for both Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr., Martin is saddened to learn that Michael (in an ironic twist of fate) died of AIDS in 1995.
Initially, Philomena feels as though she's "lost him all over again" (a quote Martin's editor urges him to use) and wants to return to England immediately. But, once at the airport, Philomena begins to reconsider, wanting to figure out more about her son by talking to the people who knew him. Searching for some sort of sign that he ever thought of her, Philomena becomes almost more determined than Martin to make the most out of her tragedy. As she unravels the truth about Michael's struggle with AIDS while working for an administration determined to strip all funding and research for a cure, Philomena feels a sense of closeness to him that she never could have imagined.
The script, which was written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, is directed with empathy by Stephen Frears (best known for High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things and The Queen), who portrays Philomena with a gentleness and understanding that makes her unwavering Catholic faith in the face of being so blatantly fucked over by the convent even more endearing. Her ability to forgive the hypocrisy of nuns who made her feel like an eternal sinner for an action she committed in a moment of passion and earnestness is the crux of what the film is about.
Striking the delicate balance between dramatic and comedic, Philomena is a story that illuminates the inner strength that each and every one of us is capable of in the face of strife, loss and generally shitty circumstances.