By Michael Gray
TITANIC TOWN. Directed by Rodger Mixhell. Starring Julie Walters, Ciaran Hinds, Nuala O’Neill. Shooting Gallery. Opens Sept. 1.
Lest anyone take Northern Ireland’s fragile peace accord for granted, a new
film shot on location reminds us how swiftly and easily the housing estates in the province can become burning battlegrounds. Set in the early days of The Troubles, "Titanic Town" jolts us back to 1972, when shootings and bombings were a daily reality in Belfast, and innocent
bystanders were too often caught in the crossfire between the IRA and the British army.
The film stars Julie Walters, best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in "Educating Rita," as a working-class woman whose life changes dramatically when she chooses school over motherhood.
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"Rita" was shot at Trinity College in Dublin, and Walters returns to Irish locations to play another earthy, determined woman, a Belfast native who takes on dangerous forces in her community and imperils her family in the process. In the film, set in the Catholic enclave of Andersonstown in West Belfast, Walters plays lead character Bernie McPhelimy, a mother of four and wife of ineffectual hubby Aidan (Ciaran Hinds). Bernie wears the slacks in the McPhelimy household (her dominant status flagrantly underlined by her sickly husband’s frequent appearances on-camera in his drawers), but passively ignores the incendiary politics outside her door. She remains stoic in the face of escalating violence until a friend of hers is fatally wounded in a shootout at the local shopping center in broad daylight.
The nationalist community blames the British army. Local residents know it was a stray IRA bullet but keep their mouths shut about it. Bernie launches a campaign to restrict gunfire to night-time only, and soon finds herself used as a pawn in the struggle, as the British government and the IRA both try to manipulate her to further their respective agendas.
"Titanic Town," named after the most renowned export from Belfast’s shipyards, comes with impressive credentials. The film is based on a true story, the source material being a novel by Mary Costello, an Andersonstown native whose mother launched a quixotic crusade to end the violence on her doortsep when the author was a teenager.
Adapted for the screen by Anne Devlin, daughter of the late Paddy Devlin, SDLP founder member and a formidable figure on the political landscape of Northern Ireland at the time, the script rings true with the voices of people who know their Andytown. But the story they have to tell is too slight to warrant full-length feature treatment, and, despite padding with the requisite romantic subplot — teenage daughter Annie (Nuala O’Neill) has her first tentative snog with a charming but evasive med student (Ciaran McMenamin), accompanied by an irritating balladeer soundtrack broadcast at busker frequency — Bernie’s inevitably doomed campaign fails to maintain the film’s dramatic momentum til the end.
The serious theme of the film is trivialized by troweling on the housewive’s political naiveté to the point of absurdity as Bernie and her friend Deirdre (Aingeal Grehan) take their pacifist plan to Stormont. And the costume department does the Bernie character no favors either, decking her out like a spinsterly National School teacher from the 1950s in a film set in The Decade that Taste Forgot.
Walters gives the Bernie role her all in terms of raw emotional engagement, and the street violence depicted is angry and blunt with none of the balletic choreography that typifies Hollywood warfare. But the thin material is stretched beyond its natural limit to fill up more than an hour and a half of screen time. Battle fatigue on the part of cinema audiences may cause some to stay away from yet another depiction of women pushing prams in one direction across the screen while Saracens chase IRA men in the other, and senior ‘ra figures wearing comfortable corduroy jackets and puffing pensively on pipes to let you know how sinister they are.
But the stories of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland, the victims and survivors of Titanic Town, deserve to be revisited on the big screen nonetheless — if only to remind us not to go back there in real life.