Friday, March 10, 2017

Neglected Gem #98: Some Mother’s Son (1996)

Helen Mirren in Some Mother’s Son (1996). 

Some Mother’s Son proves that a movie doesn’t have to be well made to touch you – and that you can forgive a lot of mistakes when a filmmaker has both a sense of drama and an instinct for playing fair. The film is set is in Northern Ireland and built around the 1981 prison hunger strike by convicted IRA members that claimed the lives of its instigator, Bobby Sands, and nine other young men. It was co-written by Terry George and Jim Sheridan, who had collaborated on the script of In the Name of the Father three years earlier. But Sheridan, who’s a brilliant director, was also behind the camera on In the Name of the Father. Here the director is George, making his directorial debut, and he’s neither imaginative nor skillful: he makes sentimental choices, he uses close-ups like a crutch, and he lacks a sense of rhythm. There are many times in Some Mother’s Son when you wish Sheridan had taken over – scenes that call out for layering and nuance, moments that need to be framed and extended that George just bops past. What the picture has is a sensational story, and its vision is quintessentially humanist: it’s on the side of two grieving mothers whose sons are imperiled equally by Thatcher’s policies and by the pride and extremist stance of the IRA.

The two protagonists are Kathleen Quigley (Helen Mirren) and Annie Higgins (Fionnula Flanagan), widowed mothers from different classes with different political perspectives who are equalized and bonded by the common experience of seeing their sons behind bars, and then hospitalized. Annie’s already lost one son to the ongoing war between the British and the Northern Irish patriots. She has a deep reflex hatred of anything English – at a pub, she refuses to sit beneath a portrait of the queen – and she demonstrates an easy and unstinting solidarity with her son Frankie (David O’Hara), who’s established a considerable reputation for his IRA activities. Kathleen is a high school teacher (at the school Annie’s daughter attends); unlike Annie, she’s conditioned to think of the Sinn Fein and its military arm, the IRA, as criminals rather than soldiers for a cause. The recent decision of her son Gerard (Aiden Gillen) to drop out of university worries her, but it’s the farthest thing from her mind that his new focus might be political. She’s astonished when he and Frankie are arrested for terrorist acts and put on trial; she didn’t even know they were friends. And she’s baffled when her son refuses counsel because he says he doesn’t recognize the English justice system. She receives a quick and cruel political education when Gerard receives a seventeen-year sentence (Frankie gets life) and then, along with other convicted Republicans, protests their being treated as criminals rather than prisoners of war. The symbol they’re fighting for here is the right to wear non-prison garb. When they’re denied, they wear their blankets; when the prison authorities, carrying out Thatcher’s latest and most rigorous tactics against the IRA prison population, won’t allow them access to sanitary facilities as long as they’re not dressed in regulation clothes, they live in their own filth and spread their excrement over the walls of their cells. It’s Bobby Sands, Gerard’s cellmate, who initiates these protests, including the final one – the hunger strike that sends both Annie and Kathleen onto the streets to campaign for their sons’ cause in an effort to save their lives.

Fionnula Flanagan (centre) in Some Mother’s Son (1996).

The movie is about freedom. It’s freedom that the boys are fighting for, and freedom that they believe the English government is robbing them of when it refuses to treat them as incarcerated freedom fighters. But in the film’s point of view, in some essential way the generations of unquestioning loyalty to the Republican cause has also taken away their freedom, and that of their families. When Gerard joins the hunger strike, Kathleen is told – it’s the most manipulative and repugnant tactic of Farnsworth (Tim Hollander), Thatcher’s representative in Northern Ireland – that she and the other mothers have the right, as next of kin, to sign release forms at any time taking their sons off the strike (i.e., okaying intravenous feeding), and, after all, “What mother would allow her son to starve?” Of course, if Kathleen signs that release, she denies her son the right to die for the cause he holds more precious than his life. So she honors his wishes. When he commends her for respecting his point of view, she tells him she doesn’t respect it, but what choice has he given her? The fact that Kathleen, unlike Annie, prizes other things above patriotism saves Gerard’s life at the eleventh hour; she makes a choice that Annie, as she herself admits, doesn’t have the freedom to make.

It’s ingenious of the filmmakers to place the women’s struggle at the heart of the movie, because dramatically their agony simplifies the whole story. I’m not using “simplify” pejoratively here; the losses of the women in Euripides’ The Trojan Women shares (in fact, it’s likely the inspiration for) this simplifying impulse, which places a thorny, unresolvable, centuries-old conflict into a humanist perspective. George and Sheridan aren’t unsympathetic to Frankie and Gerard, or to Bobby Sands (if they were, they wouldn’t cast an emotionally overpowering actor like John Lynch in the role of Sands), even though they’re merciless in dealing with the fanatical literal-mindedness of the Sinn Fein. You can feel their outrage at the inhumanity of Thatcher’s policies, yet they refuse to tar all the Brits with the same brush. (Tim Woodward plays the English government underling who tries to effect a truce and loses his job for his trouble.) The Catholic Church is singularly unhelpful, but one cleric (Gerald McSorley) strives to break through the political impasse. The filmmakers are disgusted by institutions, but they’re scrupulously fair to individuals. The movie is all about individuals – about the implication of politics for individual lives. You wouldn’t call it complex or unconventional; it’s not in the same class as In the Name of the Father, which deepened its story of gross political injustice by setting it in the realm of a dark – primal – relationship between a father and a son throws together in a prison cell. But it’s very affecting, and honestly so.

Fionnula Flanagan brings a cockeyed dignity to the role of Annie Higgins the proletarian Irishwoman; she gives a glowing, expansive performance. For the first half of the picture, Helen Mirren is limited by her middle-class role; it isn’t until Kathleen’s beliefs are shaken by her son’s experience that Mirren gets a chance to cut loose, but in that second hour she’s remarkable. George and Sheridan evoke a number of clichés in drawing the women’s growing camaraderie (in one stale comic scene, Kathleen teaches Annie how to drive), but the choice to center the film on their bond is such a powerful one, and the actresses are so good, that these flaws seem almost to fall away. You wish that the filmmakers had made the characters of the two sons more distinctive, and that they’d cast more resonant actors. (Gillen is best in extremis: he’s fine in the moving scene where Sand is taken to the prison hospital, and in the later scenes that depict his own physical suffering.) And you wish that George were more adept, but after all this was his first film. There’s one scene in which you can see him making real visual choices – when a cardinal holds mass at the prison for dozens of bearded, primitive-looking men with dirt caked into every crease of their faces and blankets thrown over their naked forms – and it’s an amazing one. George and Sheridan’s humanism transcends the movie’s problems, and if you’ve seen Hunger, Steve McQueen’s punishing, monochromatic 2008 account of the same historical incident, Some Mother’s Son will feel like a blessed relief. Ironically, it was McQueen’s film that was praised; Some Mother’s Son fell through the cracks.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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