In 2004 Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) has just been fired from his job as a government press spokesman and is looking for a book project. He is approached by the daughter of Philomena Lee (Dench) an elderly Irishwoman. As a teenager in the 1950s Philomena gave birth to a son and was forced to give him up for adoption. Now she would like to find him.
Martin is convinced that this would make a good human-interest story and accompanies Philomena to the convent in Ireland where the adoption took place. The nuns seem friendly but insist that all the records have been lost.
Martin is suspicious and uncovers evidence that the nuns were engaged in a profitable racket in the 1950s, selling the children at high prices for adoption in America while forcing the mothers to work as indentured servants. He convinces Philomena to accompany him to America to track down the child through government records.
As many people have noted the movie’s most notable feature is Judi Densch’s performance as Philomena, a woman who is somewhat ditzy but strong and fundamentally decent. Steve Coogan also deserves some praise for his portrayal of Martin Sixsmith, a much less likeable character but one who provides necessary dramatic balance to the story.