Torn apart by decades of bombings, kidnappings, and police abuses, Northern Ireland has, it seems, finally found an improbable peace. The 30-year period known as the “the Troubles” was just the latest violent flare-up in a long conflict between nationalists (mostly Catholic) who consider Northern Ireland part of an Irish homeland, and unionists (mostly Protestant) who want it to remain a British province.
In early May 2007, Catholic and Protestant politicians agreed to a power-sharing assembly and self-rule returned to Northern Ireland after five years of being directly governed by London. Tony Blair declared that the region finally had a chance to “escape the heavy chains of history.”
MapMaker traces the scars and festering sores left by those chains, raising the question of whether there can indeed be any “escape” from history. The result is a collection of interesting ideas awkwardly assembled into this political thriller. The movie opens with mapmaker Richie Markey (Brian F. O’Byrne) driving to the small border town of Rosveagh in hopes of finding work with the local heritage committee. The Dubliner left home, he tells us in a contrived voiceover, to “break from the past” - a theme maintained throughout the film.
On arriving at Rosveagh, the pleasant-faced, pleasantly balding Richie sits at a conference table across from the heritage committee: a reverend, a priest, and the unhappy couple of Robert and Jane (played by Brendan Coyle and Susan Lynch). The priest, obliquely asking about Richie’s politics, comments that his résumé reveals him to be a Quaker. “A Quaker has always managed to stay out of the main scrapes,” replies committee-member Robert, smirking.
As the only applicant, Richie gets the job of creating a map that “fills in the blank spaces” left by earlier surveys. He immediately sets off mapping the area’s back lanes and foot trails with his video camera and Global Positioning System. While stumbling through a mossy ravine, he nearly falls onto the skeleton of an alleged IRA informant. The discovery draws Richie into Rosveagh’s microcosmic Troubles as his sleuthing reignites old family and political feuds.
Mapping contested territory runs in Richie’s family. His grandfather, also an Irish Quaker, served on the 1925 Boundary Commission that established the Northern Ireland / Ireland border following the Anglo-Irish war. The real Boundary Commission ended in controversy after plans for the final border, ceding less to Northern Ireland than generally expected, was leaked to the press. In MapMaker, Richie’s grandfather, chosen for his presumed neutrality, is accused by the IRA of being behind the leak.
Richie tells this story to Cub (Oisin Kearney), the young son of the murdered “informant”. Cub, with his freckles and big eyes, is supposed to be cute and slightly mysterious, but comes off as a creepy man-child – always hiding behind trees, mouth agape, thyroidal eyes staring. The death of Cub’s father, we learn, may be related to the earlier killing of a Protestant constable—Jane’s brother, and Robert’s friend.
Writer-director Johnny Gogan is taking on many themes here: the construction and crossing of geographical and cultural borders, the politics of place names, and history – history as competing monuments, history as the return of the repressed, history waiting patiently for those trying to outrun it. MapMaker has its moments: appreciative views of the lush but craggy countryside; a black helicopter, the faceless face of military occupation, rising out of a valley to survey Richie; an exhausted constable conducting shuttle diplomacy in advance of a Protestant parade. But these are rare examples of skilled craftsmanship.
For the most part, MapMaker has the look and feel of a boilerplate public television mystery—the kind that induces heavy eyelids. The fundamentals are lacking, here. Scenes are framed in a bland, almost uncinematic, style. The pacing and plot development are weak; there is absolutely none of the momentum or suspense key to a thriller’s success. The written dialogue is often stagy and hackneyed. O’Byrne’s performance feels flat, and his character isn’t developed.
That said, it is possible for a forgiving, patient viewer to find things to chew on in this film. For example, Irishman Gogan and the character of Richie parallel each other in interesting ways as the film develops: both have their stance as objective mapmakers, as humanist-outsiders removed from local politics, shaken and them clumsily restored. While hiking, Richie runs into a crotchety shepherd who asks Richie where he’s from. Richie pauses, puffs himself up, and says, “I’m from Flesh and Bone.”
Being “neither one thing nor the other,” as he describes Quakerism to Cub, is a point of pride for Richie. And it’s certainly a necessity for a film funded by both the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Irish Film Board. However, as Richie discovers that there may be more to the “informant’s” death than a simple IRA hit, he finds himself taking sides. As does Gogan, who draws his worst villains from the Protestant camp. There’s that pesky History again. In Rosveagh, and in Northern Ireland, the Catholic minority has always gotten the short (or pointy) end of the political and economic stick. As a Dubliner, it would take some sort of a cultural dissociating disorder for Gogan to avoid portraying that imbalance in his mapping of the conflict.
One of MapMaker’s strongest scenes takes place when the righteously pissed-off Richie bursts into Jane’s classroom and accuses her of covering up details of the murder. Jane reacts angrily and accuses him and his “mates” of celebrating when Protestants are killed. “You stayed [in Rosveagh] to find yourself, but now that you have, you’re as unhappy as the rest of us,” she tells Richie. It is in these moments where MapMaker allows history’s accumulated bile to inflect its own voice, that the film “finds itself.”
Incredibly, after Richie captures the Bad Guy during a Protestant parade, the town’s warring factions come together to stare in joyous wonder as Richie’s huge, whimsical map is projected onto a public square. Our angry crusader has retuned to Quaker peacemaker. But the scene’s saccharine flavor isn’t what remains with the viewer – rather, we come away with the bitter taste of real historical grievance that infused the film’s few successful moments.
There was a similar mixing of the saccharine and the bitter in the ceremony returning self-rule to Northern Ireland. As they were sworn into their positions as heads of Northern Ireland’s new power-sharing government, the Protestant Ian Paisley and the Catholic Martin McGuinness stood side-by-side, smiling. The cameras flashed and the reporters scribbled notes on the “Miracle of Belfast”—but Paisley and McGuinness wouldn’t touch each other’s hands.
MapMaker’s DVD extras are limited to cast and crew profiles, a trailer, and production notes from the director and producer.