A movie which is by turns poignant and uplifting, humorous and deadly serious, Philomena is exceedingly well played by Dench and Coogan. It is the story of a shameful chapter in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Northern Ireland during the post-WW II era, where children born to unmarried girls were, in effect, sold by the Church out of a Catholic work house for pregnant teens.
In exchange for room, board, and prenatal care, the young women of whom Judy Dench's character, Philomena, was one, were allowed to live on the premises of what was basically a laundry/sweatshop until they had paid off their debt to the Church. As a teenager, Philomena knowingly "signs away" her rights to her illegitimate child, but late in life decides, with a little persuasion from Steve Coogan's character, a between-jobs journalist and former spin doctor for Tony Blair's administration, who hates doing human interest stories, to travel to America with him in an attempt to find her son so that Coogan can doc**ent the search for a UK magazine.
The good news is that Philomena finds her son, but not in the way she was expecting. The surprise ending is well worth the price of admission, and the film's director makes sure to give the RC Church one last--and well deserved--parting shot for its disgraceful treatment of the unwed mothers in their care. That shot was predictable, perhaps, but it feels good, nevertheless. Balancing that feeling, however, is an equally good but less guilt-inducing feeling about the power of forgiveness to heal old wounds even in the face of a perpetrator's ugly and unrepentant attitude.
If you go to the film thinking Coogan is going to be his usual, cynically wacky self, you have a surprise in store. Yes, he provides some well timed comic relief, but then so does Dench's character, and the two characters balance each other very well, with neither of them allowing the story to slip into cloying sentimentality.
That Dench's character is so nonchalant and unperturbed when she finds out her son was gay was for me a bit hard to believe, given the era in which Philomena lived. Who knows, maybe that's the way she really felt, but I have a feeling the writer and director were guilty of a little rhetorical anachronism, being influenced as they perhaps were by the new tolerance and political correctness, especially regarding the LGBT community.
This minor carp aside, I recommend this movie if only because of the enjoyment you'll derive from the team of Coogan and Dench and their characters' coming full circle via a road trip which leads inexorably and satisfyingly to closure and forgiveness.