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Peacemaking's Collateral Damage

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2000

   


    'Titanic Town' A housewife fights to end the violence in northern Ireland in "Titanic Town."
(Shooting Gallery)
Is it really wise to let someone with a name like mine (middle initial P. for Patrick, thank you very much) review a film about the violence in Northern Ireland? What do you expect from me, other than to read about how the bloody Brits are the big, bad boogeymen?

Well, they are, of course – but no less so than the IRA in Rodger Michell's thoughtful and moving film based on Mary Costello's fictionalized memoir of growing up in West Belfast at the height of what has come to be known as "The Troubles." This is the world of "Titanic Town," set in the Catholic enclave of the Andersontown housing development in 1972, a place where the mere mention of your name is enough to identify you as Protestant or Catholic, where to even breathe the suggestion – such as I just wrote – that the "boys" of the Irish Republican Army might be as much to blame for the fighting and the pervasive fear as the occupying British soldiers in their Saracen tanks, was dangerous sacrilege. It could earn you a brick through the front window, a gun barrel pressed to the side of your head by a thug in a ski mask, or worse.

So imagine what Catholic housewife and mother of four Bernie McPhelimy (Julie Walters) was risking when she dared to speak out about the situation, not just to criticize the English (that much was de rigueur in Andersontown in those days) but to insist that the IRA shoulder its fair share of the blame for collateral damage in the guerrilla war. Driven to outrage after she is forced to chase an IRA gunman off her front stoop and after an old friend of hers (Veronica Duffy) is killed in broad daylight by a stray bullet from an IRA sniper, Bernie soon becomes a local, then national, celebrity by calling on both sides for an end to the bloodshed. Not a hero, mind you, but a celebrity, with all the notoriety commingled with acclaim that that entails.

By daring to collect signatures for a peace petition, by going on TV to denounce the IRA, by meeting with representatives of the British government, she earns the suspicion and enmity of her neighbors even while alienating her browbeaten husband (Ciaran Hinds) and her eldest daughter, Annie (Nuala O'Neill), a 16-year-old whose growing independence and budding romance with a mysterious med student (Ciaran McMenamin) place her at a time in her life when she most needs a mother and not a political activist.

It's this precarious family dynamic that gives "Titanic Town" its potent emotional charge (the title is an allusion to the city where the ill-fated boat was built). As adapted for the screen by Anne Devlin (who herself lived in Andersontown in her teens), the movie is more than a polemic against entrenched enemies, although it certainly is that. It is also a complicated personal drama of relationships – parent/child, husband/wife and boyfriend/girlfriend.

As riveting as the drama on the larger stage is, Devlin and director Michell know that in order to hit with the most universal impact, their story must work on an intimate level as well, as the stress, the mistrust, the lies and the betrayals of the combatants in the field infiltrate the walls of the home and fracture the bonds between loved ones.

All is not entirely bleak, however. There's a vein of gallows humor that runs through "Titanic Town," leavening the heavy subject matter with the laugh of a condemned man and injecting its message of condemnation with hope. Across the board, the acting is of the highest caliber: Walters has just the right air of reluctant determination, and newcomer O'Neill scorches a sharp arc from innocence to disillusionment to forgiveness.

Kicking off a new series of critically acclaimed works coming this fall to the Foundry Theater courtesy of film distributor The Shooting Gallery, "Titanic Town" covers some very dark ground indeed, but in its heart burns the indomitable flame of the human spirit.

TITANIC TOWN (NR, 101 minutes) – Contains obscenity and sectarian violence.

 

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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