Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena, the movie

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan look for her son in “Philomena” the movie.

Thanks to Dame Judi Dench, this holiday season includes “Philomena,” a movie about the ultimate traveling mom, a woman searching for the son who was taken from her more than 45 years earlier.

Dench, one of the world’s best actresses, showcased her tough-as-nails exterior with glimpses of tenderness as the venerable M in the last few James Bond movies. In Philomena, she showcases a tender exterior that belies a tough-as-nails core.

This movie is based on the sad but true story of the title character, Philomena Lee. She was young, pregnant and Catholic in Ireland–not a good combination in the mid-20th century. Pregnant and alone, she goes to live in a convent, where she delivers a son. She and the other unwed young mothers pay penance for their “sin” by toiling seven days a week in the convent, allowed to spend just one hour a day with their children.

Then one day, her son and the young daughter of a friend are taken away. No warning. No appeal process. No chance to say good-bye. And, for nearly 50 years, no word of what happened to the boy she adored.

Steve Coogan Philomena

Writer and co-star Steve Coogan talks about “Philomena,” the movie.

Underlying humor in Philomena

“Philomena” was written by and co-stars Steve Coogan, who put in a surprise appearance at an early screening in Chicago. There, he talked about the time he spent interviewing the players in this real-life story as he wrote the script.

In the movie, he chronicles a cruel story of a mother and child who are ripped apart in a striking act of heartlessness, it has a core of humanity and humor that helps make it bearable to watch. And it has Dench, who can convey more with her eyes in one close-up scene than many actors can convey in an entire page of dialogue.

Philomena’s Journey

Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a British journalist whose career is at a crossroads. About the same time, Philomena’s daughter finds her crying over a picture of a small boy. For the first time, Philomena admits her “sin.” The daughter convinces Sixsmith to meet her mum and tell her story.

Thus begins an international search by the unlikely pair–a man who has lost his faith (if he ever had it in the first place) and a woman who clings tightly to hers despite the nuns who stole her child and “sold” him to an American couple.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you want to be surprised by the ending of “Philomena.”

Thanks to Sixsmith’s reporting prowess and Washington D.C. political contacts, the unlikely duo discover her son’s identity, only to find they were too late. He was Michael Hess, a closeted gay man who served in the highest levels of the Reagan and Bush administrations. He died before Philomena found him, one of the early victims of AIDS.

Heart-wrenchingly, Philomena discovers that her son had looked for her, just as she looked for him–by returning to the convent where they spent those first few years together. And every time one of them asked, they were given the same news: He was told his mother didn’t want him and she was told there was no information about the son she was desperate to find–even after his  burial on the convent grounds.