Philomena tells the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a British woman who goes in search of her son who was adopted almost 50 years earlier and taken to America. Based on Stephen Frears’ book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film shows Martin Sixsmith (actor/director Steve Coogan), a disgruntled ex-BBC journalist, teaming up with Philomena to help her confront her past and write a book about the supposed injustices committed against her and her son.
Early in the film, Philomena, a young Irish teen, gets pregnant out of wedlock and is sent by her family to wait out her confinement and birth at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland, a home for unwed mothers and their children run by the Catholic Church. At the Abbey, Philomena is denigrated by the nuns for her immoral choices and then spends the next several years working hard labor, only getting to see her son about once a day. Although she signs a document relinquishing her child, she is still shocked when she discovers that her son is being adopted by an American couple, presumably after they pay the nuns a steep price for the child.
Fifty years later, Philomena remembers the circumstances with regret and goes on a mission to track down her long-lost son, making a pilgrimage to America with Sixsmith at her side. While there, she discovers that her son, a gay man, had been a successful senior level aide to President Reagan and had died just a few years earlier, presumably of AIDS. After returning to Britain, she discovers that her son had made a similar journey the year before he died to the Abbey in Roscrea, looking for Philomena. Philomena and Sixsmith pressure the Abbey to explain why the records of her son’s adoption had never been made available to her and why the Abbey hadn’t contacted her when her son showed up. The nuns implied that the records had been destroyed in a fire. Later, it’s implied that it was a fire they started.
In the end, Philomena makes peace with her tragic past, forgiving one particular nun who was supposedly the main barrier between Philomena and her son, and visiting her son’s grave (he chose to be buried at Roscrea). It is a bittersweet ending, one that raises serious concerns about the Irish Catholic Church and its potential involvement in child trafficking.
That is, if it were true.