The film is a delicate balance of humour and seriousness.
Philomena tells the story of Philomena Lee (played by Dame Judi Dench), an old Irish woman searching for her son, and is based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, written by Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan in the film). The film shows Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist, unemployed and depressed. He meets Philomena and hears her story, deciding to go on a months-long journey with her across Ireland and to America in search of her son, who she had been forced to give up for adoption fifty years earlier. On their journey,the two uncover injustices done to Philomena and other girls her age by a Roman Catholic convent in Ireland, which took in unwed mothers when their families would disown them, as well as the identity of her son, Michael Hess (played by Sean Mahon). Throughout the film, Martin and Philomena must butt heads with unhelpful and secretive nuns and bitter friends and family members, as well as each other, on their way to finding Michael.
The acting is superb. Judi Dench, who I was used to playing characters like M in the James Bond franchise, really loosens up as Philomena. She runs the emotional gauntlet, moving from hilarious scenes to poignantly sad ones deftly and convincingly. Steve Coogan, who both co-wrote and produced the film, seems to have calmed down these days, and for the better. Gone are the buffoonish traits he displayed in films like Hamlet 2, Tropic Thunder, or (dare I say it?) Around The World In 80 Days. He is consistently funny, in a subdued and often very cynical manner, while at the same time coming across as heartfelt. Going into the film, it seemed there would be little room for humour, but Philomena is actually very funny. Despite the subject matter, Philomena and Martin both have many lines that are laugh-out-loud funny. Particularly interesting are the conversations the two have on religion during their trip: Philomena is a staunch Catholic, while Martin is a lapsed Catholic and bitter atheist. These roadside debates on Catholicism in many ways embody the overall tone of the film, as they bounce frequently back and forth between lighthearted, sarcastic quips, to much more serious discussions.
There’s no other way to put it (ignoring everything above, of course): Philomena is a great movie. The acting is well-done and the dialogue is well-written. The film hits some hilarious emotional highs, as well as some tremendously sad lows, due in large part to Dench. This is really a showcase of her range, if anything else. If you’re someone who cries easily at movies, beware: this will not be an exception.