Film Reviews

Peace at a Price

Whatever one might believe about the past centuries of English oppression of the Irish, one thing is sure: No matter how raw a deal they've gotten in real life, the Irish haven't been shortchanged on the screen. From the Easter Rising to the more recent Troubles, the conflict has been a film staple, with sympathies heavily, though not universally, aligned on the side of the Irish. In the Name of the Father is one of the best examples of the predominant trend; Patriot Games, with its supernaturally relentless and vicious IRA villains, falls at the other end of the spectrum.

Titanic Town, a 1998 production only now reaching American theaters, presents yet another view of the Troubles. (The film's title is unfortunate, suggesting a lame attempt to capitalize on that other Titanic film: In one brief, awkward scene, a character explains that "this is where the great ship was built by poor Irish laborers," after which it is never referred to again.) Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Persuasion) seems to be striving for a perfectly evenhanded presentation, but of course there can be no such thing: Evenhandedness is in the eye of the beholder, or, more accurately, in relation to where one sits politically on the issue.

The film is set in 1972 in Andersonstown, a district of West Belfast. For reasons never made quite clear, the McPhelimy family has just moved into a new flat in a pleasant working-class housing project. "When I was 16," Annie McPhelimy (Nuala O'Neill) informs us in voiceover, "my mother became a celebrity." It is a claim made with pride and irony, as subsequent events show.

Indeed, Annie's mother, Bernie (Julie Walters), starts out as a perfectly average Belfast housewife, trying to raise four children with little help from her loving husband, Aidan (Ciarán Hinds), who is sidelined by poor health. Bernie may be a Catholic and a patriotic Irishwoman, but she is just as fed up with IRA snipers endangering civilians as she is with the British troops who occupy the neighborhood. The snipers' cause may be just, but that doesn't give them the right to shoot in crowded local spots at midday, endangering her children and friends.

All Bernie wants is peace, but she is not the most politically savvy person in the world. Her willingness to speak out against both sides is quickly seized upon by the media, who make it sound as if she is simply anti-IRA. In no time, Bernie and her family are ostracized by much of the community, though not, it seems, by the local IRA officials, who realize her actual position and sense an opportunity to use her new fame to further their own goals. She organizes a women's peace drive, trying to at least limit the constant gunfire to nighttime, when most of the citizens are safely in their homes. She makes some advances, but when it becomes clear that the Brits are also exploiting her, even her supporters turn against her. As a result, her children are exposed to greater danger and harm than they would have been had she held her tongue.

Michell and screenwriter Anne Devlin (working from Mary Costello's autobiographical novel) don't take a simple view of their protagonist. Bernie seems to be a woman on a sincere mission, but there may be some truth as well in her daughter's accusations of egocentricity and self-aggrandizement. And, while no one is going to come out against "peace" in the abstract, it's easy to see how Bernie's actions could do more harm than good. Bernie's emergence as a firebrand is intercut with her daughter's emergence as an adult: Annie discovers love with a mysterious young medical student (Ciarán McMenamin), but her mother's activities get in the way of any sort of normal relationship.

The central conflict is a lesser version of the problems at the heart of A World Apart (1988) and Daniel (1983), and it can't be said that the filmmakers add much new. Perhaps Michell's greatest accomplishment in the movie is in creating a sense of being there. We feel totally immersed in a surreal situation--a cheery, almost suburban neighborhood patrolled by tanks and trigger-happy soldiers and frumpy homemakers whose small talk about gardens is drowned out by gunshots.

Despite able support from Hinds and O'Neill, this is basically a one-woman show for Walters, older and almost unrecognizable as the star of Personal Services and Educating Rita. She portrays Bernie as a maternal force of nature without smoothing off all the rough, less sympathetic edges. But it's hard to know just how much to trust Titanic Town. In some ways, Bernie may be a metaphor for the film itself. That is, it seems to be simply, happily coming out for "peace"--taking no side and damning the excesses of both sides. An argument can be made that this is an inherently pro-British position, a defense of the status quo that chooses to ignore the loathsome history. It is generally the privilege of the party doing the dominating to speak soothingly about "peace"--from which there would be everything to gain and nothing to lose. It's tougher to be so magnanimous when you're the underdog.

It may well be that the filmmakers, like Bernie, have only the purest of motives. One can overlook the fact that the film seems to have been funded entirely by British and French, rather than Irish, companies. (Of course, British companies have funded some clearly pro-Irish films as well.) It's harder to overlook the image the film presents of the opposing sides. While the Brits, represented primarily by two politicians, seem sleazy and hypocritical, most of the Irish on display are portrayed as ignorant, cowardly, squabbling, drunken louts who wouldn't know what to do with self-rule if it were handed to them with an instruction manual. Yes, Bernie and her family, as well as some of the IRA stalwarts, are basically sympathetic figures. But it would have taken expensive animatronics or computer imaging to make the residents of Andersonstown look any more subhuman.

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Andy Klein