In the 1950s, it was shameful to be a pregnant teenager in Ireland. For a girl who was brought up by Catholic nuns, it was unspeakable.
When it happened to Philomena Lee (Dench) in 1952, the nuns punished her by working seven days a week, allowing only one-hour visitations with her son Anthony (Tadhg Bowen). She loved him dearly and lived for the special—if not limited—moments she had with him.
At age 3, Anthony was adopted by an American couple from St. Louis, Mo. Philomena was never given the chance to say goodbye. She kept his existence a secret for over 40 years, though she kept in regular touch with the convent in case Anthony ever came looking for her.
Once her daughter found out about her missing brother, she enlisted the help of Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), an out-of-work journalist with the investigative skills to track him down.
The film covers this true journey from start to finish, adding in unnecessary Hollywood embellishments, but thankfully that doesn't hurt its effectiveness. As depressing as the subject matter may be, it's a pleasure to watch.
Dench is simultaneously tragic and charming as Lee, showing the the pain of what she had lost with every glance. Coogan is also perfectly cast as the journalist who is at first in it for himself, but soon develops a genuine compassion for the mother.
As with all true stories, this one is being told too late, but there is hope that the conversations it will spark my soon make a difference in the practices of the church and the perception of sin in Ireland.