A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman’s search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.
When former journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is dismissed from the Labour Party in disgrace, he is at a loss as to what do. That changes when a young Irish woman approaches him about a story of her mother, Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench), who had her son taken away when she was a teenage inmate of a Catholic convent. Martin arranges a magazine assignment about her search for him that eventually leads to America. Along the way, Martin and Philomena discover as much about each other as about her son’s fate. Furthermore, both find their basic beliefs challenged.
Former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is mildly depressed for being fired from his post as a press secretary for a British government minster for information misconstrued in something he wrote, he being the token fall guy in the matter. Initially thinking about writing about his forte of Russian history, he somewhat reluctantly, as his first post-firing job, decides instead to write a probably more lucrative human interest story on Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench) when he learns of her plight from her daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), his reluctance as he doesn’t see himself as a writer of fluff. As a teenager, Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) lived at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland as an unwed mother, there where she and the other unwed teenaged mothers were required to live and serve the abbey as “repayment” for four years. They all had limited access to their children, and while many, including Philomena, wanted eventually to leave with their children, they knew the nuns could and would adopt out the children if given the opportunity. Philomena’s son, Anthony (Tadhg Bowen), was adopted when he was aged three, she not even being notified or thus allowed to say goodbye to him before it happened. Although Philomena has thought about Anthony her entire life and had made attempts to find him before, she has a strong feeling of uncertainty about him now on what would have been his fiftieth birthday. She doesn’t necessarily want to see him, especially if she knows he doesn’t want to see her, or blame anyone, especially those at the abbey as she is still a devout Catholic, but just wants to know that he is all right. In his time with Philomena, much of it just being the two of them alone, Martin, who has generally led a life of privilege, has to overcome his derision toward her solely because of her more provincial attitude. After visiting the abbey where most of the nuns from Philomena’s time there have died, Martin decides to follow an anecdotal and thus unsubstantiated lead which takes the two of them to the United States. That rift between the two of them could widen if he discovers something in the story that she doesn’t really want to know, or follow-up on, which could in turn be problematic as she may or may not be aware that he contractually has a story to write, he needing to find its most newsworthy aspects, good or bad.