The plot involves a long-buried Irish scandal and its injustices. While the story and the mystery at its heart drives the action, what's underneath proves more confounding. The heroine, an artless victim, cannot confront the worldly forces arrayed against her. The hero, a seasoned, jaded reporter, cannot conquer them either...without her help.
At least, that's the surface plot. Go deeper, and Philomena takes a hard-nosed look at modernity.
To get to the truth of her family tragedy, the character Philomena needs to abandon anger and thoughts of revenge. She doesn't see her narrative in terms of good versus evil. The muckraking reporter, driven by outrage, wants wrongdoers exposed. His editor needs a tale of clear-cut villainy and heroics.
The class divisions also speak to our age. Philomena has spent her life as a laborer and absorbs tearjerking pulp fiction without an ounce of irony. The reporter, who is all irony, rolls his eyes as she recounts the banal plots. Philomena shivers at the cost of corporate travel. The reporter shivers at the prospect of not boosting his paper's circulation. Interestingly, audiences can grasp these class distinctions across three countries and two continents.
We all need stories, the film seems to say. And how we tell them has much to do with how we live them.
Who is closer to the truth of life? Can investigative journalism function without skepticism, not to mention ire? Yet who can absorb loss with a closed and angry heart? We need innocence to be human, sophistication to survive the world and this film repeatedly pits one against the other, to great effect.