Spoiler Warning: This film is inspired by a true story, so many viewers will already know the outcome. The reviewer has attempted to avoid explicit plot spoilers, but just discussing the film's themes means you may guess at plot twists.
Philomena is based on Martin Sixsmith's book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Steve Coogan plays Sixsmith, who is smarting as the film begins. He recently lost a prestigious journalism job, and believes his firing was unfair and unwarranted. But no matter where he goes, nobody appears to be interested in his side of the story.
Philomena Lee (Dench) is in a similar situation. When she was nineteen, she was forced into indentured servitude to pay for the shelter and care that the Irish nuns provided her, and now, fifty years later, she is haunted by curiosity about the son who was taken from her. Philomena has contacted the orphanage she worked in several times, but all she know is that all records have been lost. They reminded her that she signed a document surrendering parental rights and promising not to attempt to contact her child.
So Sixsmith agrees to use his reporter skills to help Philomena locate her son. In return, he'll get access and the right to publish the human interest story he believes could get his career back on track.
This is an actor's piece, and both leads are tremendous. There's probably not an adjective in the thesaurus that hasn't been deservedly laid at Dench's feet, and Coogan is right there with her in what is arguably a more difficult—certainly a more unlikeable—role. Philomena rambles cheerfully about romance novels and is enthralled by cable-access movies in upscale hotel rooms. Sixsmith is disdainful of her provincialism and moral naiveté but disarmed by her completely sincere frankness. Their interactions are what makes the film enjoyable.
But though it's successful as entertainment, whether Philomena inspires or challenges as a work of art depends on how the viewer interprets the film's message about religion. Philomena may be forced to reevaluate her relationship to the church as the truth about her son is revealed. And Sixsmith, as the audience surrogate, is the judge. Given what she has learned about the church, how can Philomena still hold fast to its teachings?
Philomena is asking herself these questions, even before the film's climax. In one key scene, Philomena attends confession, but cannot go through the motions of the routine, which has been drilled into her since childhood. But later, after she confronts an elderly nun, Sixsmith accuses Philomena of inauthenticity, of going through the motions and saying the rote words of forgiveness rather than letting out all the hate and bitterness he assumes she must be harboring.
Sixsmith is scandalized that she or anyone could think that huge wrongs could be dismissed as easily as saying a few words. Philomena replies archly, "You think that was easy?"
I thought Philomena was about Philomena. As such, I thought the ending sublime. But others may have reservations on two fronts. First, Sixsmith, while professing atheism (or at least being strongly anti-church), is not presented as a monster. The film gives plenty of ammunition to anyone who wants to argue that the church tends to hurt more than it helps. (That's an argument that depends on how we measure what's inherently unquantifiable.) But while Sixsmith may be wrong about God, he's not wrong about everything, and even Philomena recognizes on some levels that she is using him just as much as he is trying to use her. He will do things that she will not, but she wouldn't have gotten to the truth without his willingness to challenge the authority of the church.