The film was nominated in four categories at the 86th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay for Coogan and Pope, Best Actress for Dench, and Best Original Score for Desplat. It was also nominated for four BAFTA Awards and three Golden Globe Awards.
London based journalist Martin Sixsmith has lost his job as a government adviser. He is approached at a party by the daughter of Philomena Lee. She suggests that he write a story about her mother, who was forced to give up her toddler son Anthony nearly fifty years ago. Though Sixsmith is initially reluctant in writing a human interest story, he meets Philomena and decides to investigate her case.
In 1951, Philomena became pregnant and was sent by her father to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea in Ireland. After giving birth, she was forced to work in the convent laundry for four years, with little contact with her son. The nuns gave her son up for adoption without giving Philomena a chance to say goodbye. She kept her lost son a secret from her family for nearly fifty years.
Martin and Philomena begin their search at the convent. The nuns claim that the adoption records were destroyed in a fire years earlier; they did not, however, lose the contract she was forced to sign decades ago forbidding her from contacting her son, which Martin considers suspicious. At a pub, the locals tell Martin that the convent burnt the records deliberately, and that most of the children were sold for £1,000 each to wealthy Americans.
Martin's investigation reaches a dead end in Ireland, but he receives a promising lead from the United States and invites Philomena to accompany him there. His contacts help him discover that Anthony was renamed Michael A. Hess, who became a lawyer and senior official in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. When Philomena notices Martin in the background of a photo of Michael, he remembers that he met him years earlier while working in the US. They also learn that he has been dead for eight years.
Philomena decides she wants to meet people who knew Michael and learn more about him from them. They visit a former colleague of Michael's and discover that Michael was gay and died of AIDS. They also visit his sister Mary, who was adopted at the same time from the convent, and learn about his partner Pete Olsson. After avoiding Martin's attempts to contact him, Pete agrees to talk to Philomena. He shows Philomena some videos of his life with Michael. To Martin and Philomena's surprise, they see footage of Michael, dated shortly before he died, at the Abbey where he was adopted, and Pete explains that, although he never told his family, Michael had privately wondered about his birth mother all his life, and had returned to Ireland in his final months to try to find her. Pete informs them that the nuns had told Michael that his mother had abandoned him and that they had lost contact with her. He also reveals that, against his parents' wishes, he had Michael buried in the convent's cemetery.
Philomena and Martin go to the convent to ask them where Michael's grave is. Despite Philomena's efforts to stop him, Martin angrily breaks into the private quarters and argues with an elderly nun, Sister Hildegarde McNulty, who worked at the convent when Anthony was forcibly adopted. He accuses her of lying to a dying man and denying him the chance to finally reunite with his mother, purely out of self-righteousness. Hildegarde is unrepentant, saying that losing her son was Philomena's penance. Martin demands an apology, telling her that what she did was un-Christian, but is speechless when Philomena instead chooses to forgive her of her own volition. Philomena then asks to see her son's grave, where Martin tells her he has chosen not to publish the story. Philomena tells him to publish it anyway.Judi Dench as Philomena Lee
Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith
Michelle Fairley as Sally Mitchell
Barbara Jefford as Sister Hildegarde
Anna Maxwell Martin as Jane
Mare Winningham as Mary
In addition to the main cast, Sophie Kennedy Clark plays a young Philomena, Kate Fleetwood plays a young Sister Hildegarde, Simone Lahbib plays Kate Sixsmith, Cathy Belton plays Sister Claire, Amy McAllister plays Sister Anunciata, Sean Mahon plays Michael, Philomena's son , and Peter Hermann plays Peter Olsson.
The score of the film was composed by Alexandre Desplat.
Philomena received mostly positive reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 92% based on reviews from 175 critics, with an average score of 7.8/10. The site's consensus reads: "Based on a powerful true story and led by note-perfect performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, Philomena offers a profoundly affecting drama for adult filmgoers of all ages." At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 77, based on 42 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews."
In The New York Times, Stephen Holden described the film as "so quietly moving that it feels lit from within." He wrote: "That [Dench] makes you believe her character has the capacity to forgive provides the movie with a solid moral center." He found the film's political viewpoint particularly sophisticated:
Philomena has many facets. It is a comedic road movie, a detective story, an infuriated anticlerical screed, and an inquiry into faith and the limitations of reason, all rolled together. Fairly sophisticated about spiritual matters, it takes pains to distinguish faith from institutionalized piety. It also has a surprising political subtext in its comparison of the church’s oppression and punishment of unmarried sex ... with homophobia and the United States government’s reluctance to deal with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
Kelly Torrance of The Washington Times found that the film "ultimately feels false", with the filmmakers succumbing to the temptation to focus on the "lessons" the story holds at the expense of the human story itself. Justin Chang, of Variety, called the film a "smug but effective middlebrow crowdpleaser." While noting Dench's "fine, dignified performance", he observed that much of the humor here comes at the expense of Dench's character. "[I]t's hard not to wonder if the writers are simply scoring points off [Philomena]."
Rex Reed of the New York Observer gave the film a glowing review and named it the Best Film of 2013, saying: "It’s profoundly moving and thoroughly mind provoking, but despite the poignant subject matter, I promise you will not leave Philomena depressed. I've seen it twice and felt exhilarated, informed, enriched, absorbed and optimistic both times. This is filmmaking at its most refined. I will probably forget most of what happened at the movies in 2013, but I will never forget Philomena."
The New York Post's film critic Kyle Smith claimed the film was "another hateful and boring attack on Catholics." He called it "90 minutes of organized hate" and claimed that: "A film that is half as harsh on Judaism or Islam, of course, wouldn’t be made in the first place but would be universally reviled if it were." Philomena Lee responded to Smith with an open letter that said:
The story it tells has resonated with people not because it’s some mockery of ideas or institutions that they’re in disagreement with. This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith.
Producer Harvey Weinstein took out a full-page color advertisement in The New York Times that quoted some favorable reviews and part of Smith's review accompanied by an excerpt from Lee's letter, and invited the public to make its own decision. Smith had accused several other films that were produced by Weinstein for anti-Catholicism, including The Magdalene Sisters (2002), The Butcher Boy (1998), and Priest (1995).
As of 7 May 2014, the film has grossed $37.7 million in North America and $62.4 million in other territories, for a combined gross of $100.1 million.
The film and its cast and crew have earned several award nominations, including four Academy Award nominations and four British Academy Film Award nominations. Dench and Coogan received nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress at the British Independent Film Awards. Dench also garnered nominations for Best Actress from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, London Film Critics' Circle, Satellite Awards and Screen Actors Guild Awards. Philomena garnered three nominations at the 71st Golden Globe Awards, and also won the David di Donatello for Best European Film.
The film employs artistic license with the real life events. Sister Hildegard McNulty, the principal antagonist in the film, is depicted as having met with journalist Sixsmith after he started working on the story. In reality, McNulty died in 1995, and Sixsmith only began his investigation in 2004. The final scene in which a wheelchair-bound McNulty chastises Philomena for carnality is also artistic license. According to a Daily Mail article: "A spokesman for film-maker Pathe said although some scenarios were changed for 'dramatic purposes', the story was 'materially true'. He said the nuns were contacted twice about the screenplay last year but they failed to send a formal reply."
A 2009 article by Martin Sixsmith describes the practice of the Catholic church in Ireland at the time, forcing unwed mothers in their care to give up their children for adoption.
Sixsmith has said that Coogan's portrayal of him shared his "intolerance of injustice in all walks of life", and his admiration for a woman like Philomena who has the strength to rise above this. However, he is less angry than his on-screen version and is an agnostic rather than an atheist.