Be warned: Philomena will make you angry. This film takes place in the Magdalen laundries of Ireland, where the Catholic Church imprisoned young women for "crimes" like having sex, being raped, or even being too pretty. The last of these brutal places didn't close until 1996.
This is not a movie about politics, religious freedom or anything bigger than getting on with life when shit happens. The protagonist, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), doesn't blame the church for locking her up and taking away the son she had out of wedlock in the 1950s. She still even goes to Mass. But she has always wondered what became of her little Anthony after he was "adopted by" (read: sold to) a rich American couple at the age of 3.
Enter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a British journalist at a confusing crossroads in his career. A chance meeting with Philomena's daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), draws him into the story. He agrees to help Philomena find her son and to write about what happened to her. It turns out she's been trying to find Anthony for years, only to be stonewalled by the nuns at the convent where she was imprisoned. A former BBC correspondent, Martin has far greater resources at his disposal than she does. He also has a very different reaction to her predicament: rage. How can Philomena be so calm about what happened? Even Jane calls what the church did "evil," but Philomena dismisses it. She just wants to know what sort of life Anthony has, whether he's happy, and whether he ever thinks of her.
I am on Martin's side. Though director Stephen Frears avoids phony sentiment, I cried tears of rage and horror through much of the film. Flashbacks to the 1950s show that there is nothing "institutional" about the treatment of young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark). Instead, there is spite toward a teen girl who was kept ignorant about sex and got pregnant when a boy showed her some affection. The cruelest nun makes it clear that women who hated their own womanhood were called upon to punish "fallen" girls.
Despite the horrors it depicts, Philomena is a remarkably funny movie. This could be the first cry-until-you-laugh dramedy I've ever seen. Frears finds odd yet wonderful poignancy in the clash between Philomena's forgiveness and Martin's fury. Dench and Coogan are engaging as a sort of mismatched-buddy duo. Watching them find the life-affirming elements of tragedy is both moving and amusing.