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Labour spin doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), fired after an unforgivable political blunder, is down in the dumps. Once a journalist, he vaguely considers writing a book, though scoffs when someone suggests he look for a ‘human interest story’. He looks down his nose at this kind of ‘soft’ journalism – but then, just such a story falls right into his lap.
He hears about Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a retired nurse from Ireland, who after a lifetime of silence has just told her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) about the baby boy she gave up for adoption fifty years before. A teenaged single mother, she was taken in by nuns who forcibly separated her from her son. Now all she has is a faded photograph of little Anthony, and a heavy burden of guilt and regret which her continued belief in God can’t relieve. She’s willing to share her story with Martin, if he will help her find out what happened to Anthony.
The search takes them to America, and into unfamiliar territory for both the cynical Martin and the frightened – but still faithful – Philomena.