Soon after Tom Hanks, a young hotshot in a Philadelphia law firm, wins promotion, a lesion forms on his forehead. It transpires that he has Aids, and eventually the physical effects are impossible to conceal from the partners, led by Jason Robards. They fire him, unconvincingly citing incompetence as their reason. It is an old-fashioned outfit and they fear the effect on their clients. Hanks becomes more ill as the disease wreaks its terrible passage through his system, and even though he knows death is inevitable he resolves to sue his old firm on the grounds that his dismissal was really because of his illness, and therefore unfair.
The closed society of Philadelphia law turns its back on him, and in desperation he goes to a fiercely heterosexual black lawyer (Denzel Washington) who makes a point of standing up for the oppressed. He is essentially homophobic but he is also against persecution and after initial reluctance, takes on the case.
Jonathan Demme's film is Hollywood's mainstream embrace of the Aids issue. The casting of Hanks, a neutral figure with none of the flamboyant and stereotypical homosexual characteristics that occur in say "The Birdcage", shows a careful concern for political correctness, and his demeanour with his lover (Antonio Banderas) is remarkably chaste. It gives Hanks room to develop his character, and his decent, sympathetic performance won him the first of two consecutive Best Actor Oscars.
As a courtroom drama it is extremely effective, and a fine cast, which includes Mary Steenburgen and Joanne Woodward, stirs the emotions without sentimental overtones. The scene in which Hanks opens up his homosexual world to Washington by playing a favourite aria is particularly clever. Arguably, the horror of death from Aids has been sanitized for popular consumption, but nevertheless it is a brave and commendable effort.