Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is at the doctor. Everything checks out okay although his blood levels are a little high. He is excited to hear that his stool sample is “outstanding” until he is told that it means he hasn’t provided one yet. The doctor then tells him that Martin’s wife has told him he’s mildly depressed. He explains that he was fired as a Labour government advisor for something that he didn’t say. The doctor suggests he tries running. Steve says he’s now devoting his time to writing a book on Russian history. In response, the doctor repeats he should try running.
A BBC News report introduces us to Martin Sixsmith, the former press secretary of the Prime Minister. He has been trying to clear his name in private. He has put out a statement saying the senior figures in government told him there was no suspicion of misconduct against him yet they still forced him to resign from his position. The news broadcasts are intercut with Martin running, just as the doctor suggested. He finds himself in a church, listening to a choir singing, watching a young boy who he knows. His mind is distracted, though, thinking of how much the news is discussing him at that moment. He finally leaves the church before the performance is over.
Martin is outside. His wife finds him and tells him he embarrassed her by leaving early. He points out that he doesn’t believe in God and he thinks the members of the church can tell. She tells him he should get back to work on his Russian history book but he admits that nobody is interested in the subject.
Now we meet Philomena (Judi Dench) who puts tea candles into the altar in front of a church and prays alone.
Via a flashback, we see a young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) at a carnival, amusing herself in the Hall of Mirrors. A young man starts up a conversation with her.
Back in the church, the priest asks Philomena about her new hip and tells her he hasn’t seen her in a while. She says she’s back in church, remembering someone, but doesn’t say who.
In the flashback, we see the boy and Young Philomena getting romantic, kissing behind the amusement park rides. As Philomena walks home, we see a flashback that she’s replaying in her head of two sisters (nuns) asking her if she “took her knickers down” with a boy. She admits, yes, and that she was never told about sex and how babies were made. It is then revealed that she is pregnant. The sisters tell her she will be punished for her indecency.
In the flashback, nuns are now helping Young Philomena give birth to her baby. As she screams in pain, they refuse to give her painkillers, explaining that the pain is punishment for getting pregnant out of wedlock. She begs one nun not to put her baby in the ground because it’s cold and dark.
Current day Philomena is in her living room with her daughter. She is obviously distracted. When her daughter inquires, she shows her a picture of a three-year-old boy. She tells her daughter that today is his birthday and he would have been 50 today.
In the flashback, Young Philomena’s baby boy is extracted from her womb. The mother superior cradles him.
At a party, Martin is introduced to many people. Philomena’s daughter, who is working as a caterer, overhears that Martin plans on writing a book or getting back into journalism. It’s revealed that Martin’s backlash came when an email he sent was leaked, where he said that the media coverage of September 11th, 2001 ended up providing a good way to bury bad news in the press (because they would be overshadowed by the bigger story) but he said that it was a misunderstanding; on the day of Princess Margaret’s funeral, he said he hoped the only thing they buried that day was Princess Margaret.
When the others leave, he asks Philomena’s daughter about the wine options. She tells him she overheard that he works in journalism and she said she found out that morning that a woman had had a baby when she was a teenager and it was taken from her by nuns and forced into adoption. Martin says he doesn’t do human interest stories because they’re stories about weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people and put into newspapers for like-minded people. He walks away.
At home, he asks his wife if he should do a human interest story.
Philomena and her daughter meet Martin at a restaurant. He asks Philomena how she’s doing and she talks about her hip replacement. Martin makes a joke that if her replacement hip wasn’t made of titanium, they’d to oil her like the Tin Man. She doesn’t understand it’s a joke and takes his comments as literal. Philomena’s daughter explains that he’s being funny. Martin agrees, and then seriously explains that his mother actually has advanced osteoporosis in both of her knees; to this comment, Philomena laughs hysterically, not being able to gauge fact from fiction.
Martin and Philomena begin to chat at the salad bar. As she explains her situation, we see in flashbacks that Young Philomena was left with the nuns, ashamed of her after she became pregnant. Her family never visited her. Because she was pregnant out of wedlock, she and other girls in the same situation were forced to work as an indentured servants for four years. Philomena was put to work in the laundry room, the most grueling job available for women in her position. The only upside is she worked along a woman who became her best friend, Kathleen.
All of the unwed mothers were allowed to see their children for only an hour a day. Young Philomena greets her young boy in the cathedral’s nursery. Her son, Anthony, is best friends with Kathleen’s daughter and they are inseparable. Kathleen begins crying, telling her she has heard that some visitors wanted to meet with her little girl (afraid that she would be adopted). Young Philomena tells a friendly nun about Kathleen’s concern but the nun ignores her, instead slipping her a photo she had taken of young Anthony (the same one Philomena showed her daughter). This is a huge surprise because the nuns never would have let her have a photo of her child; the nun borrowed a camera and took the shot when nobody was looking.
In present day, Philomena explains that she wouldn’t have any photo of Anthony without that nun. Martin asks her if she was basically trapped in the nunnery and Philomena explains that she could only leave if she paid them £300 and there was no way to get that money, nor was there any place to go.
Philomena tells how one day a big car arrived and Kathleen was frantic because she was sure that the couple inside were coming to adopt her daughter. Young Philomena watches through the front yard’s barred gate but is caught by a nun who tells her to get back to work. Young Philomena goes upstairs and tries to see what’s going on in the nunnery from her bedroom window. She can see Kathleen’s daughter clearly. The couple is admiring her. Philomena is called to choir practice and has to leave her view of the nursery. After she goes, Young Anthony begins playing with his best friend, Kathleen’s daughter and catches the eye of the couple.
In choir practice, one of Kathleen’s friends interrupts to tell Philomena that Anthony is being taken away. She runs to a window and sees her son being led into a car by the couple. Young Philomena screams and runs out to the yard. She can only watch as the car drives away with her three-year-old son in the back. She doesn’t even get to say goodbye. She breaks down in the front lawn of the convent.
In present day, Philomena explains that they took Anthony as well as Mary (Kathleen’s daughter) because they were inseparable. Martin begins to jot down notes but Philomena has to interject and point out that some of the nuns were very nice. Martin asks if they can visit the nuns. Philomena says she has visited several times over the past few years and they have been helpful and said they’d try to trace them. Martin points out that they haven’t done anything yet. Philomena asks if he can help her find her son. Her daughter tells him that they’re going to travel to Ireland soon and invite him to take a car with them. He refuses, politely, explaining that he’d prefer to fly.
In the next scene, Martin pulls his BMW up to Philomena’s home. It’s revealed that Philomena’s daughter has decided to stay behind. As they drive, Philomena asks Martin what kind of a car they’re driving, offers him candy, doesn’t catch on to his jokes. Philomena hangs a St. Christopher figure from his rearview mirror for good luck. He tells her that he doesn’t believe in God and asks if she does. She confidently says, Yes.
The two arrive in Roscrea (Ireland) where the convent is. Philomena reminds the woman at the door that she made an appointment and is led into a meeting room. Philomena asks to use the bathroom, knowing where it is since she was there for many years as a teenager. The woman leaves to get some tea. Martin looks at all the photos hanging on the wall pictures of nuns from over the years. He is confused as to why an autographed photo of Jane Russell is on the wall.
Philomena sneaks upstairs to look out what used to be her old bedroom window, the one she had gone to, to see inside the nursery. She then ventures out to the front lawn to look through the same barred gate that she saw her baby taken away from her.
Sister Claire finally arrives. Martin mentions the Jane Russell photo but is not given any info as to why her autograph is on the wall. Philomena returns to the room and the three of them begin to chat over tea. Sister Claire tells Philomena that if she hadn’t heard since her last visit, most of their records were destroyed in a fire and she doesn’t have any information. Philomena holds back tears and tells the sister that she still goes to mass and doesn’t blame the church she doesn’t need to see her son, she just wants to know if he’s okay since she has visions of him being homeless and unloved. The nun tells her they can help her walk through the pain. Martin asks if they can ask the older nuns if they remember anything but the sister says it won’t be possible to, without giving any reason. She becomes annoyed with Martin and asks him if she can speak to Philomena in private.
Martin goes out into the lobby and sees an older nun with a walker going down a hall. He tries to follow behind but the woman that greeted them at the door catches him and explains that the hallway is private quarters. He waits outside.
In the front of the convent, Martin finds unmarked graves one is for a mother and child that died in childbirth, another for a 14-year-old girl.
Philomena meets Martin back at his car. She says that the nun told Philomena that Martin was a journalist and would probably try to manipulate her. She was told to give Martin an envelope it’s a contract that Young Philomena signed, stating that she relinquishes full claim forever to her child and she will never attempt to interfere with or make any claim to her son at any future time. Martin points out that it can be challenged if she was coerced to sign it but she sadly admits she signed at her own free will because she felt she had committed a terrible sin and needed to be punished. She also admits to feeling guilty about enjoying the sex, not even knowing she had a clitoris until then. From then on, she had spent most of her life believing anything that felt good was bad. Martin asks her why God would bestow upon people a sexual desire that he wants them to resist, another hint at his agnosticism.
Martin and Philomena reunite with Philomena’s daughter in a bar. Philomena defends the convent, saying the records were lost in a fire. Both women leave to go to bed. Martin stays behind and speaks to the bartender who points out that the abbey wasn’t on fire; the fire was actually a bonfire they deliberately set to burn records of all the babies they sent to America for adoption. The bartender explains it was mostly Americans doing the adopting because they were the only ones who could afford the £1000 required; the bartender’s mom confirms, explaining that Jane Russell was one of the American Catholics who took a baby home from Ireland.
Martin is now jogging. He calls the editor of the newspaper interested in his story pitching it as a little old lady whose son was snatched from her by evil nuns. Regardless of where Anthony ended up in life, the story he intends to write will conclude with him being reunited with his long lost mother.
Philomena and her daughter meet with Martin as he updates them on what he’s learned about the girls’ babies being adopted mostly by Americans. Martin cannot get many answers over the phone since he is not the actual birth mother looking for information; he needs Philomena to go to America with him and the newspaper has agreed to foot the bill. She agrees to go, to find out if her son ever thought about her the way she thinks about him, which is every day.
Philomena is very excited to be traveling. While they are escorted to the gate on the back of an electric shuttle, she tells Martin about a trashy book she is reading, which reveals to the audience how different they are (he just finished a book on Russian history). Martin sits silently while Philomena goes on and on about every single detail in the plot.
On the plane, Philomena is very excited to get a free mimosa. Martin runs into an old colleague who is sitting in first class, a perk that Martin used to enjoy before being fired from his position. Philomena tells him just sitting him in first class doesn’t make him a first class person.
In a flashback (a home video we have yet to see), we see shots of a young Anthony getting off a plane in America.
The plane lands in Washington D.C. Philomena is fascinated by the view of the Capitol from her room. Martin goes out on her patio to make a phone call and when he returns, pitches the idea of taking a walk to see the Lincoln Memorial. Philomena suggests they stay in and watch Big Momma’s House on the hotel television; the on-screen guide has shown a snippet and she thinks it will be hilarious.
The two end up at Lincoln Memorial. Martin asks Philomena to stand by the statue for a photo; she says she doesn’t know if she’s supposed to look happy or sad because they don’t know if they will find Anthony or not. They do one of each.
Philomena admits she’s scared because, now that they’re getting closer, she will find out if something horrible happened to him and will then no longer be able to imagine that he’s happy somewhere. He says they’ll deal with that when they get to it.
Martin is in his hotel room and gets a call from Philomena, asking him if he wants a bathrobe and slippers because she has an extra pair. He points out that all guests get two pairs in their rooms. Martin calls his wife and tells her that he is now learning firsthand what happens to someone’s brain when they spend their life reading pedestrian newspapers and magazines. He mocks the fact that Philomena constantly tells the staff how kind they are, wondering if she thinks they’re volunteers.
Martin is asleep but there’s a knock at his door. Philomena is there. She wants to thank him for helping him looking for her son. He thanks her in response. She says goodnight.
Philomena goes back to her room and prays.
In flashbacks (a home video), we see a young Anthony enjoying a birthday party.
Martin is doing research from a table in the hotel’s restaurant. Philomena is chatting up the man serving food at the omelet bar. She runs to Martin to tell him how exited she is that they get a free breakfast. A woman interrupts to ask if they want coffee. Martin says, no, thank you. She replies by telling him about the breakfast options. He tells him that they’re trying to have a private conversation. Philomena says she’s a very nice person and he doesn’t need to be rude. He writes this off, mocking her for constantly telling staff they are “one in a million.” She says it’s important to be nice to people on the way up because you might meet them again on the way down, and he should know this better than anyone (since he just went through a scandal and lost his career). She says she’d prefer he’d be rude to her than to the nice people that worked there. Martin sarcastically says he’s sorry he wants quiet time but he’s trying to help her find her son. She doesn’t issue a reply but instead, gets up and walks away, chatting up the man at the omelet bar.
Martin gets a new email. He opens it and an imbedded photo downloads of a young Anthony getting off a plane. The caption explains that a couple with the last name Hess have adopted a boy and a girl from Ireland Mary and Michael. Martin does a search on “Michael Hess” with Anthony’s birthdate and it pulls up a page on a Michael Hess, who is a member of the Republican Party. There is a picture of an adult Anthony, explaining he was adopted from Ireland and was key advisor for the Republican National Committee during the Reagan administration. But then he scrolls to the bottom and finds that Michael (Anthony) died in 1995.
Philomena comes back to the table with a plate for Martin, who is speechless. She thinks he’s being rude still until she sees the website with Anthony’s picture on it. She realizes he has died and begins to cry. Martin holds her.
Philomena and Martin ride in the backseat of a taxicab. She is broken up and not speaking. A young couple catches her eye, reminding her of the boy she was romantic with at the carnival.
Martin calls the newspaper editor and tells her that Martin died. They’re at the airport, about to go back to England. The editor insists they spin the story to come up with some kind of ending. He knows he can’t get more information without Philomena and knows she won’t want to stay. The newspaper editor says he signed a contract and is obligated to give her a story. Martin sits by Philomena who says he’ll have to use the not-so-happy photo at the Lincoln Memorial. She remembers the young boy who was Anthony’s father charmed her by pretending to be an old man and her, an old woman, and now that she is one, she’ll never get to see Anthony and tell him sorry. Philomena then asks Martin if they can change their flights because she’s been waiting for a sign and none has come so she feels she should stay longer.
The two remain. Martin shows Philomena a picture of Anthony with President Reagan. He says they can meet an ex-colleague of Anthony’s. Surprisingly, Philomena notices that Martin is in the picture, as a cameraman for the BBC (a job he had before he worked for the Prime Minister). He remembers that he met him at the White House. Philomena asks what he was like and since he doesn’t remember the actual meeting, he deducts that he had a strong handshake (he would have remembered if it was weak) and he suspects he said something along the lines of Hello (which enthralls Philomena).
Philomena looks at pictures of Anthony with Reagan, through a White House colleague of Anthony’s named Marcia. Philomena admits that he never would have had a job like that if he stayed with her in Ireland. She then asks Marcia if Anthony ever mentioned Ireland but she doesn’t remember him ever doing so. Philomena notices a picture of him with another man, wrapped in an embrace. She then sees a picture of Marcia and Anthony together and asks Marcia if she was his girlfriend but she explains that Anthony was gay and she went as his companion when they went to public functions because the Republican Party frowned on gay relationships. Philomena doesn’t respond, only to ask if he fathered any children. Martin points out that Anthony was gay and Philomena says she already knew that she just wanted to know if he was bi-curious. Marcia says he doesn’t have any children.
Outside, Philomena tells Martin that she always wondered if he was gay as a young boy and when she saw the photograph of him at three-years-old (the only one she has), there was no doubt in her mind.
A home video flashes on the screen, showing an adult Anthony with his lover, Pete.
As they drive, Martin asks Philomena why she kept the secret for 50 years. She says she felt it was a sin and was ashamed of it; but realized lying about it was also a sin. After debating which was the worst sin of the two, she couldn’t make up her mind. She then asks Martin to use a pseudonym for the article and suggests several names including Anne Boleyn. He informs her they’ll have to use her real name.
Martin and Philomena arrive at their destination the rundown home of Mary (Mare Winningham), Kathleen’s daughter. Mary shows Philomena pictures of her childhood, admitting that their adoptive father was very abusive. Mary tries to explain that Anthony had a partner but Philomena interrupts explaining she knows already that her son was a “gay homosexual” and thinks it was terrible he had to keep it a secret his whole life. She inquires whether Anthony died of AIDS and Mary confirms, explaining that he felt conflicted working with the homophobic Reagan administration. Philomena asks where Anthony was buried but all Mary knows is there was a huge debate between her adoptive father and Pete (Anthony’s lover) about where his grave should be. Before they go, Philomena asks if Anthony ever mentioned Ireland or where he came from but Mary doesn’t remember any such occurrence.
Philomena has a flashback of her son as a boy, in the nursery.
Martin says it was odd that Mary was in the same room as Anthony’s mother and didn’t ask her any questions. Philomena defends Mary, saying Philomena is a stranger to her. She asks to stop by a church so she can confess her sins. Martin says that the Catholic Church should be confessing their sins, having incarcerated her and given her baby away against her will. Philomena says she hopes God isn’t listening and Martin reminds her that he doesn’t believe in God and discounts blind faith and ignorance. She points out that he’s acted like a smart aleck throughout the trip and rudely snapped photos of people without their permission. When he gets to the church, he takes another jab, bringing up a “God takes out terrorists” headline, saying that God also takes hundreds of thousands of lives. He says that Philomena should bring that up in the confessional but she just calls him a “fecking idiot.”
Philomena goes inside and steps inside the confessional. Outside, Martin makes a phone call to the editor and updates her on what they’ve learned about Anthony him being gay, Martin having met him at the White House ten years earlier.
After waiting a long while, Martin finally goes into the church. Philomena is leaving the confessional at the same time. Martin apologizes for being a “fecking idiot.” Philomena has been thinking about something else she wants to give Martin money to pay for all the hotel stays and flights in exchange for him not writing an article. She realizes Anthony never mentioned her or Ireland and probably hated her. Martin encourages her to wait until they talk to Pete, Anthony’s lover.
Martin goes on a jog and makes a phone call to someone at Pete’s office but they won’t give him any contact info because Pete refuses to meet with Philomena.
At the hotel, Martin knocks on Philomena’s door but there’s no answer. He convinces the bellhop to let him inside but has to lie and say Philomena is his mom. He goes into the room, calling for his “mom.” He finds Philomena hidden away on the outdoor patio. She said she needed to cry and asked if he got in contact with Pete. He tells her that he’s reluctant to speak with her but he’s sure he’ll come around.
More home videos, this time showing Pete and Anthony together.
Martin is downstairs in the hotel, drinking a Guinness beer with a Celtic harp on the side. Philomena comes downstairs and tells him they should go back to England since Pete isn’t willing to meet with them. Martin says they should go visit Pete tomorrow even though Philomena is afraid that Martin wanted nothing to do with her and she doesn’t want to know. Martin shows her what he’s just discovered in the professional photo on the Republican Party website, Anthony is wearing a pin in the shape of a Celtic harp on his jacket. This is the symbol of Ireland.
Martin and Philomena wait outside Pete Olsen’s house. He is dropped off by a man in a sports car. Martin plans on ambushing him at the door to get him to speak to him. He pulls up to the driveway. When he knocks on the door and tells Pete he’s there with Philomena Lee, Pete slams the door in his face. He knocks on the door again but Pete threatens to call the police. Finally, Philomena gets out of her passenger seat and goes to knock on the door. When Pete opens the door to yell at who he thinks is Martin, Philomena explains she just wants to hear about her son and that he was taken away from her and she’s been looking for him for years (in case he thought she abandoned him).
Pete shows Martin and Philomena the memorial video that was played at Anthony’s funeral. In the video, Pete and Anthony pose with the nuns at the convent. They had gone back to Ireland in hopes of finding Philomena but the nuns said they had no idea how to contact her because Philomena had abandoned him, which she declares was a lie. Pete admits that he argued with Anthony’s adoptive father about where he should be buried and Pete finally won Anthony was buried at the convent.
Philomena and Martin go back to Ireland. They pull up to the convent in Roscrea, where they had begun their search. Philomena asks that Martin not make a scene, now that they know that the nuns had deliberately misled Pete and Anthony, as well as Philomena when she stopped by to inquire.
Martin and Philomena ring the doorbell and are greeted by the same woman as before. They are brought to the meeting room. Philomena tells Martin to remember that it’s not the nuns’ fault because they didn’t know Anthony was renamed Michael Hess. Martin points out that one of the nuns did and leaves the meeting room. He steps into the hallway of private quarters and tries to find an unlocked door. The kitchen is unlocked and Martin steps inside and, before anyone can stop him, crosses into the rooms where the older nuns reside. He finds the woman he’d seen before with the walker, who turns out to be Sister Hildegarde, and asks why she kept Anthony from Philomena when she had a chance to reunite them, right before he died. Everyone comes running in to protect Sister Hiledgarde from Martin and they wheel her away; but she stops in her tracks when Martin points out she’s not acting very Christian. She spins around in her wheelchair and says that she’s kept her vow of chastity her whole life and that the girls have nobody to blame but themselves. Basically, because they had sex, they deserved to be kept from their children. Philomena finds the two of them and tells Martin she’s found her son and that’s all she came there for. Martin continues attacking the nun, telling her she should apologize and he points out the grave of the teenaged girls who died in childbirth. The nun says Jesus Christ will be her judge, not Martin. Martin said, if Jesus was here, he’d tip her out of her “fucking wheelchair.” Philomena asks them to stop arguing. Martin asks Philomena why she is deciding to do nothing. She responds by telling Sister Hildegarde that she forgives her. Martin says, “Just like that?” And she replies, “Not just like that. It’s hard for me. But I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you.” Martin says, “I’m angry.” She tells him, “It must be exhausting.” Philomena then asks to be brought to her son’s grave.
Martin follows behind, stopping in the gift shop, where he’s given a dirty look by the nun who let him in the front door. Outside, Philomena stops by Anthony’s grave, remembering him as a child, juxtaposed with the footage she’s seen of him as an adult. Martin approaches. Philomena tells him Anthony knew she’d find him there and that’s why he asked to be buried in Ireland. Martin says he’s decided not to publish the story and gives Philomena a gift he bought in the convent’s gift shop a figurine of Jesus Christ. Philomena then tells Martin she’s decided she does want him to publish the story so people know what happened to all the unwed mothers at the convent.
Philomena and Martin get back into his car. She asks if he wants to read the latest book she’s finished. He asks her to tell him about it instead. She goes on and on about all the details of the book, just like she did at the airport on their way to Washington D.C. As she gives a longwinded summary, we see the car away from the convent’s front driveway in an aerial shot.
A card afterwards explains that Martin Sixsmith published a book about Philomena in 2009 and that thousands of adopted Irish children and their ‘shamed’ mothers are still trying to locate each other. Philomena resides in England and continues to visit her son’s grave at Roscrea. Martin Sixsmith has now published several books including some on Russian history. The real life footage of Anthony as a child is played over the credits.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Martin Sixsmith (a real life person) has recently been fired from the Prime Minister's staff and is pitched the idea of a story by the daughter of Philomena. She was raised in a convent and forced into indentured slavery for the abbey after she becomes pregnant; her son is also kept away from her and at age three, sold to adoptive parents without her getting to say goodbye. Martin and Philomena take a trip to the convent in Ireland, then to Washington DC after they learn he was most likely adopted by Americans. There, they discover her boy had grown into an adviser for Ronald Reagan but died in 1995 of AIDS. Philomena is worried her son wanted nothing to do with her but they continue researching, meeting her son's adopted sister and his former lover. It is eventually revealed that he had requested to be buried in Ireland and had often visited the nuns to inquire about his mother but they withheld information. They go back to the convent and the only woman old enough to have known Philomena as a teenager says that she didn't give any information during their visits because Philomena was being punished for having sex out of wedlock. Martin despises religion and verbally attacks the hypocrisy but throughout the film, Philomena has kept an upbeat spirit and is able to forgive the nun. Martin learns to be more open-minded towards Philomena, who he originally wrote off as uncultured.
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