The problem may be the precision with which the screenplay is balanced between anti-Catholic screeds and beatific acceptance and forgiveness. The situation of unwed mothers in 1950s Ireland was objectively horrific--with no sex education to be had, Philomena had no idea that the nice day at the carnival with a boy could lead to her pregnancy. Then, because she was not married (and was only about 15) there was no social support for her and she was sent away to a Catholic abbey that took in wayward girls/fallen women. Pain was considered the atonement for the sin of carnality, and after the child was born, the girls were forced to stay on working for the abbey to repay the costs of their keep.
Meanwhile, the children were adopted out where possible, and their removal is depicted as a surprise to the mothers who lose them. Because the substantial sum of $1000 was paid for the adoptee, charges of "baby selling" are leveled.
Steve Coogan plays involuntary free-lance journalist Martin Sixsmith who investigates the story and finds the missing son. His character is the source for nearly all the anti-Catholic and anti-religious commentary in the movie. His character is carefully balanced by Philomena herself, played by Judy Dench, the religious apologist and believer.
For every angry denunciation by Sixsmith, there is an equal and opposite reaction by Philomena, explaining and excusing what happened to her. "They were selling babies" versus "I could never have given him this kind of life." "They abused you, and that makes me angry" versus "It happened to me, and I'm the one who gets to decide how I feel about it." Sixsmith finds God unbelievable; Philomena still goes to Mass.
The denouement is almost too tidy, but is apparently true--Philomena's son was adopted by Americans, but as an adult, he returned to the abbey where he was born to look for his mother. He got no help, but was buried there in the hopes that she would find him there one day. And she did.
Is this movie worth seeing? It doesn't quite come together. Judy Dench does lovely, quiet work as a mother gingerly confronting a past she has been groomed to be ashamed of, but she never really seems to struggle with the emotions. In fact, she comes across as deeply naive, possibly to the point of feeble-mindedness. Her lack of internal conflict robs any power from her decision to forgive the nuns who engineered her misery. She never really seemed all that broken up. "I think of him every day" doesn't really ring true, especially since she kept his existence a secret for 50 years. The couple of times Sixsmith yells "She has spent her life looking for him" also is not supported by the movie itself. She maybe tried contacting the nuns once before? She changed her mind twice about continuing the search during the course of the movie, which is played as "silly woman doesn't really know what she wants" rather than as the result of deep emotional conflicts.
She is a bit silly, and the movie mocks that--and then carefully balances that negative characterization by showing Sixsmith as mean and thus equally unlikeable. And while their personalities are ostensibly wildly different, they don't really come into much conflict--they neither one exhibit much of an arc over the course of the movie.
It's fine, really--a small movie about people confronting realistic life traumas. There are no car chases, nothing gets blown up, no guns are drawn or fired. Dench looks every one of her character's 60+ years, and the camera does not shy from closing in on the wrinkles of her face. In some ways, what she does almost isn't "acting" because she isn't moving, she's remaining still, letting the lines of her face tell the story. Which is probably even harder to do.
It's the smallest movie of the Best Picture nominees (that I have seen) and probably the weakest entry. But not a bad use of time.