Terry George, the director and co-writer (with Jim Sheridan) of Some Mother's Son, has more complicated feelings about Northern Ireland than he can express coherently. They shoot out in piercing shards of action and potent gutter or pulpit rhetoric. Some Mother's Son is about the fight to save the lives of the rebel group that became known as the Ten Men Dead. It may appear to be a forthright pro-Irish saga of unjust incarceration. But it's only superficially simple. You have to keep your wits about you to step-dance through its emotional terrain -- there's a welter of conflicting attitudes in the characters as well as in the filmmakers. The movie expresses what it's like to endure unending political catastrophes. The people in this film live on survival reflexes; they hope for emergency stopgaps that can't substitute for lasting resolution. As political art, Some Mother's Son is wanting. As a document of Irish confusion, it's indelible.
At the turning point of this fact-inspired chronicle of "the Troubles," a college-age boy named Gerard Quigley (Aidan Gillen), having been thrown into Ulster's Maze prison for IRA activity, joins the hunger strike that resulted in the death of Bobby Sands and nine other young rebels from May to August of 1981. (In the early '70s, George spent three years in the same prison on an arms charge.) The core of the story is the relationship between Gerard's mother, Kathleen (Helen Mirren), an anti-IRA schoolteacher, and a working-class mother, Annie Higgins (Fionnula Flanagan), whose revulsion for the British is near total. As Annie's son, Frank (David O'Hara), and Kathleen's Gerard teeter toward martyrdom, the two women petition and beg the British government to respond to the prisoners' demands and end the strike.
The mothers' affectionate alliance is a marvelous example of the surprising valences in human chemistry. Kathleen is a smart, firm woman in a "soft," equivocating position. Right up to his arrest, Gerard has been able to hide his politics from her. She's horrified at the cold-bloodedness of his self-styled soldiering, and mortified when he plants a farewell kiss on her mouth to pass a written message to the Sinn Fein. Annie, on the other hand, wholly supports Frank's actions. She's already lost one son to the struggle, and she's certain that blasting the British off her island will better her lot. Kathleen, educated and worldly, is better able to articulate their sons' plight to British officials, but Annie has the scrappiness and sorority needed for a war of emotional attrition. As the turbulence behind bars runs its terrifying course, the audience, like Kathleen, gets caught up in the fervor of Annie's firebrand solidarity.
George's stirring depiction of the prisoners' revolt and its riotous consequences obscures the film's key idea: that destruction or self-destruction inevitably cripples a movement. The IRA inmates protest because they want to be recognized as prisoners of war, not criminals. The most critical of their five demands is the most purely symbolic: the right to wear their own clothes. George means to question whether acquiring such a right -- and, at one point, the ability to call it a right and not a privilege -- is worth risking lives. But his re-enactments of the turmoil in Maze prison and the street processions that follow is so mind-grabbing and electric that a rift develops between what the movie states explicitly and what it dramatizes.
George has said that the film is about the anguish of people squeezed between two extremes: the institutional violence of the British and the mystical revolutionary violence of the IRA. It plays out, though, as a battle between a liberal -- Kathleen -- and the radicals and reactionaries around her. In art, as in politics, the liberal perspective is difficult to make dynamic and appealing. Seeing Kathleen look askance at the rebels' courtroom grandstanding isn't as gut-warming as watching Annie mouth off to every authority figure in sight, whether the security forces or a nun. Early on, there's a barbed critique of Irish manly charm in Gerard's deception and manipulation of his mother Kathleen. But George never rises to the full-blooded analysis of Irish machismo that informed In the Name of the Father (which he and Sheridan also co-wrote, with Sheridan directing).
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Still, Some Mother's Son has impact even when it zigs and zags. In the opening minutes, George intercuts the girls in Kathleen's school pounding their way through a step dance and Gerard and Frank targeting British military vehicles with a bazooka; the sequence culminates with classroom windows shattering and a jeep and truck exploding into flames. Of course, the cutting baldly points up the cruel disruption of the peaceful school by the guerrilla war beyond its gates. But George also gets at something more mysterious -- the percussive, fatalistic nationalism shared by almost every major character except Kathleen. In another suggestive bit of cutting, George moves from the mothers crooning American pop standards to the prisoners joining arms and voices and drumming on walls.
At these times, the film has an atavistic charge that's rooted in real events. When the prison guards won't pick up the inmates' slops unless they take off their makeshift blanket robes and put on their convict uniforms, the men smear their feces on the walls and keep up their regimen of exercise and Gaelic pride. This isn't hyperbole, it's history. If anything, George is downplaying their blend of lowdown grit and high-grade nationalism in order to sustain his dramatic credibility. In The Troubles, Tim Pat Coogan writes that during this episode, "The Irish demonstrated both their defiant natures and their sense of identity in a manner which gave new meaning to the term 'back to basics.' For example, throughout the Dirty Protest, the prisoners continued to hold Irish classes. They tapped out a word on the central-heating pipes and then inscribed it onto the walls of their cells in their own excrement, sometimes using the crucifixes on their rosary beads as stylos." George's audience viscerally experiences the IRA men using patriotic and religious enthusiasm to jack themselves up into a transcendental state. When Gerard first lands in Bobby Sands's prison cell and tells him he looks like Jesus, it sounds like an air-clearing quip; when Sands lies dying of starvation, after just being elected to Parliament, it's no joke.
Flanagan is fabulous as the proletariat mom. She alchemizes small and big bits of business into a performance bubbling with fresh folk legendry and humor: At her peak she refuses to sit beneath a portrait of the Queen hanging on a pub's wall. Ruddy, freckled and on the strong side of stout, she's like a gorgeous, weathered swath of Irish landscape. And Mirren, though she starts as tentatively as the character herself, gains in authority as the film develops. When Gerard lies prone and exhausted in his hospital bed, Kathleen won't crack and condone his politics to give him comfort. Nor will she relinquish her parental rights: Her intransigence saves him. She and Flanagan have a heartrending breakthrough when Kathleen emerges shaken and crying from the prison after Gerard takes up the hunger strike. With a flash flood of empathy washing away all past resentments, Annie urges Kathleen to get a grip in front of the prison personnel -- before she collapses into tears herself. The movie is about the need to preserve life without betraying comrades. Mirren is the one who finally clarifies that theme while George shows the men nattering over bargaining points. She brings the film the gift of a fine-grained consciousness.
Some Mother's Son.
Directed by Terry George. With Helen Mirren and Fionnula Flanagan.