Film and TV

Selling You on an IRA

If the brutal miscarriage of British justice that drove In the Name of the Father didn't send you running to the nearest Sinn Fein recruiter and the fiery romanticism of Michael Collins didn't have you putting together a tidy shipment of machine guns for the Provisionals in Belfast, maybe Some Mother's Son will do the trick.

What stone heart, after all, would fail to be moved by the plea of an anguished mother?

Even those of us who believe that Maggie Thatcher is a villainess on the order of Lucrezia Borgia or Imelda Marcos and that the British have absolutely no business dumping their nostalgia for empire onto the aching back of Catholic Ireland might have a hard time swallowing the political ploy director Terry George and co-writer Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) try to pull off here. To wit: These filmmakers disguise their endorsement of the Irish Republican Army through a highly personal, emotionally loaded tale of mother-love in crisis. But their purpose is clear.

The central event here is the 1981 hunger strike in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison that resulted in the deaths of Bobby Sands and nine of his IRA brethren--for the right of IRA men to wear their own clothing in jail and otherwise be regarded by their captors as prisoners of war rather than as criminals. Fifteen years later, many people on both sides of The Troubles still question the wisdom of making such a grand, fatal gesture for so little gain. But that issue is not the film's province.

Instead, it examines the moral quandary that 21 Irish mothers had to face in 1981 when given a choice of honoring their starving sons' political beliefs or breaking the strike and saving the boys' lives. For George and Sheridan--who collaborated on the screenplay for In the Name of the Father--this was a drama of classic proportions, as well as an opportunity to stump for Republicanism past, present and future by recalling the agony of martyrs.

Before going any further, let's note that the film's two embattled mothers--one a staunch blue-collar revolutionary, the other a middle-class skeptic who's always kept politics at arm's length--are fictional composites, which means that the movie can essentially do with them what it likes. What it likes, initially, is to set up a stark contrast between fierce Annie Higgins (Fionnula Flanagan), who's already given one son in battle and disdains even to sit under Queen Elizabeth's photograph in the local pub, and rational, detached Kathleen Quigley (Helen Mirren), a widowed schoolteacher who can't believe it when the cops kick her door down (on Christmas Eve, no less) and drag her son away on charges of attempted murder.

What the movie indulges later, which comes as no surprise, is the hard-won but inevitable radicalization of Kathleen Quigley. She is at first the resisting non-participant who tells off the local Sinn Fein man: "Disrupt and destroy; that's all you people can do!" Then she's the constituent straddling the fence. At last, after enduring official indignities, having a cup of Protestant urine thrown in her face and beholding her emaciated son on his deathbed, she evolves, in her way, into another soldier on the battlements. Arm in arm with steadfast Annie Higgins. In other words, Kathleen is the audience--or at least that part of the audience the moviemakers feel needs some convincing. And in the plain but dignified person of Helen Mirren (loyal Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George), they have found not only the ideal Everywoman but also the perfect vehicle for the gospel according to De Valera, Sands and Gerry Adams.

If we still have any doubt about the moviemakers' sentiments, it's dispelled in their portrayal of the famous doomed prisoners in H Block at Maze Prison. Fictional Frank Higgins (David O'Hara) and Gerard Quigley (Aidan Gillen), Bobby Sands (John Lynch) and the others go inside as strapping, healthy young men full of guerrilla swagger and righteous belief. But when the Thatcher regime tries to destroy the IRA by withdrawing "special-category status" from its imprisoned members and recasting them as common criminals, the politics of despair take hold. The men refuse to wear prison uniforms, huddling under gray blankets instead. When the administration denies un-uniformed inmates bathroom privileges, they smear their excrement on the jailhouse walls. When their protest still goes unheeded, they begin the hunger strike.

Ten minutes of screen time later, the actors start looking like the apostles. By the time dying Bobby Sands is elected to Parliament by an aroused Catholic citizenry, every last one of them is the image of Christ en route to Calvary.

The real dramatic crests of Some Mother's Son are ridden by its two disparate women, Annie and Kathleen, as they slowly come to understand each other, to bond and to make grave decisions about the fates of their sons. But the emotional and ideological centerpiece of the film is undoubtedly director George's elaborate reenactment of Sands's funeral. Here, for all to see, is the glorious and tragic soul of Ireland itself--the tri-color draped on the martyr's coffin; the massed mourners swollen with anger and pride amid their endless war of liberation; the sneering protesters mocking them; the drunks (politics unknown) wobbling on the edges of the somber spectacle. This is not just 1981 revisited. It's also 1916. And 1690. Even for thousands of movie extras, the moviemakers say, restaging the Sands funeral in Cork provided a major catharsis. Those who couldn't attend the original didn't mind confusing art and life as they marched and keened anew for director of photography Geoffrey Simpson's cameras. For them, George says, the whole thing was very nearly real--despite the passage of time and the presence of artifice.

Some Mother's Son.
Screenplay by Terry George and Jim Sheridan. Directed by Terry George. With Helen Mirren, Fionnula Flanagan, Aidan Gillen and David O'Hara.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo