Claiming a Political Voice
Roger Michell’s Titanic Town opens in 1972, a particularly bitter year in Northern Ireland’s history. The optimism that marked the Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement’s marches to end anti-Catholic discrimination and demand equal electoral rights in the late 1960s had already foundered in sectarian violence. The hostilities between the Protestant and Catholic communities, exacerbated by the pro-Protestant sympathies of many in the province’s police force, culminated in the infamous “Battle of the Bogside” (a Catholic area of Derry), in August, 1969. It prompted James Callaghan, then Britain’s Home Secretary, to dispatch the army to restore order.
Initially welcomed by the beleaguered and outnumbered Catholic populations, the army lost all cross-community support in January 1972, when the soldiers of a British parachute regiment fatally shot 13 civil rights marchers in Derry. “Bloody Sunday,” for the majority of Catholics, marked the reforming of the traditional alliance in Irish political life of Protestants, police, and army against a largely working-class Catholic community. Michell’s film drops the viewer into the subsequent ruthless struggle between the British army and the IRA for control of the Catholic areas of the province, as Bernie McPhelimy (Julie Walters), a West Belfast housewife, wakes to Army helicopters above her house and an IRA gunman on her front step.
In a moment of feisty grandeur, Bernie drives the gunman step by step back down her front path, only to find herself and her older children pinioned in the helicopter’s searchlight. For a moment in this early sequence in the film, the inherent tragedy of daily life hits the viewer in the face. Lacking any sympathy for the IRA, the inhabitants of West Belfast are still the enemy (potential terrorists or harborers of terrorists) to the British army. Bernie faces a choice between bowing to the guns of both sides, or struggling to claim a political voice, free of nationalist or unionist cant. Much to the consternation of her family especially her ailing and unemployed husband Aidan (Ciaran Hinds), who fears their deaths at the hands of the IRA, and her socially sensitive 17-year-old daughter, Annie (Nuala O’Neill), slowly falling in love with medical student, Dino (Ciaran McMenamin) Bernie chooses struggle. Yet she confronts both the IRA and the Stormont administration so courageously but so naively that her neighbors accuse her of betrayal, her children endure psychological and physical violence, and her husband collapses from his ulcer and almost dies.
Though the film has maudlin moments worthy of Romance Channel Classics (the apparently inevitable Irish domestic-scene-setting rendition of “Danny Boy,” the fairly predictable adolescent love story, and some mutually-educational mother-daughter exchanges, particularly in the last scenes of the film), Anne Devlin’s script and Michell’s low-key direction (more reminiscent of his dispassionate work on Persuasion than his jolly Notting Hill) keep the film rooted in the earthy, intimate experience of one complex woman and her frequently terrified family. And while the story itself is not at all new (the damage wreaked by an idealist on those who love her most), the writer and director use the slow accretion of detail about Bernie in the first half-hour of the film to give the audience a sense not only of what Bernie is struggling for, but also the powerful personal inertia she is struggling against.
She is constantly anxious to create a good impression and uphold her respectability. As an army raid begins on her street, she urges her husband to put his trousers on so he doesn’t meet the army “bare-arsed.” When she realizes the soldiers are heading for her home next, she sends the children upstairs to make the beds, and is subsequently mortified by the dust the soldiers find beneath them. A neighbor’s loud-mouthed recitation of 800 years of Irish misery elicits the complaint that “She’s letting the whole street down,” and when her husband remonstrates, Bernie snaps back that there’s such a thing as “dignified resistance.” The film tracks Bernie’s slow awakening in all its complexity, showing how her desire to maintain a tenuous personal dignity in the face of an armed invasion interlocks with the ever-present fear of IRA retribution. This allows the audience to imagine how much more attractive it is seems at times, to choose the route of acquiescence to the status quo of military occupation, rather than risk the dangers of individual action.
Fortunately, the film resists the temptation to romanticize Bernie. All she wants in the beginning is for the IRA and the soldiers to move their shooting contests from the daytime to the night so that children can go to school and housewives finish their shopping. Peace in the specific sense of ending the conflict isn’t on her agenda at all. As media ambush and interrogation (tactics no different from those of the IRA or the army) force “peace” on her, she fumbles, missteps and raises yet more communal ire along the way. Even when she challenges her fellow parents at a school awards ceremony with having failed a generation, the 25,000 signatures for peace she subsequently collects create a propaganda coup for the government and also publicly reveal her fear of condemning the IRA. In such moments, Julie Walters gives her rawest performance in years, investing Bernie McPhelimy with the same exhausting honesty she brought to the role of Angie Todd in Alan’s Bleasdale’s television series Boys from the Blackstuff, a biting fictional indictment of the impact of Thatcherite economics on Britain.
The small miracle of this film is that it isn’t worthy, and therefore isn’t dull. It doesn’t pretend to offer solutions; nor does it collapse into didactic or sanctimonious preaching or reach for the emotionally appealing shortcut of sentimental catharsis (as, for example, Some Mother’s Son does). As in Pat O’Connor’s 1984 film Cal or Peter McDougall and John McKenzie’s 1975 teleplay Just Another Saturday, the most important questions are framed as the contradictions facing the characters, not the rights and wrongs of any cause, thanks in part to the filmmaking team’s attention to irony and nuance. Bernie swallows Valium at home, but genteelly sips tea with the government. While her daughter worries at home about potential IRA assassination, at school she’s accused of the social sin of “letting down the Catholics.”
The demarcations of dress (the women in matching pastel suits and hats that “look like Unionists” and are indubitably middle-class) and accent (only the IRA speak with the same accents as Bernie and her family, while politicians, journalists, and broadcasters exude the clarion confidence of English English) provide a running gloss on Bernie’s odyssey, and the whole is animated by the writer’s fine ear for the wry repartee of the underdog under fire. As Annie and her almost-lover Dino walk past Harland and Woolf’s empty shipyard, he tells her how the workers scrawled on the side of the Titanic, “No Pope here.” “Lucky Pope,” mutters Annie, head down, briskly exiting frame right. When the ambulance peals for the second time to the McPhelimy house, the drivers joke they’ll need to erect a sign saying “Accident Black Spot” outside the house. Even Bernie’s attempt to impress on her husband the power of her support by claiming the Bishop is right “behind” her misfires when Aidan rouses himself enough to complain that he’d be a lot happier if the Bishop were in front of her. Only in the closing sequences does such wit wither into more “conventional” wisdom. And by then it’s much too late to sour this quiet, moving film.