TITANIC TOWN (Roger Michell, 1998)

Julie Walters gives a ferocious performance—possibly her finest—as Bernie McPhelimy, an ordinary person who in the early 1970s becomes an activist for peace in Catholic West Belfast, Northern Ireland. Anne Devlin’s fine script adapts Mary Costello’s novel based on the activities of her own mother and others, who are fed up with their neighborhood’s being a dangerous battleground caught between British military police and the Irish Republican Army. The film emphasizes Bernie’s role as mediator, which finds her manipulated by both sides, but especially British politicians, and scorned by her neighbors, who initially mistake her efforts as opposition to the IRA. (Media manipulation assists in this.) Annie McPhelimy’s voiceover sets the course: “When I was sixteen, my mother became a celebrity.” Annie lives with husband Aidan and their four children. Bertie’s closest friend is accidentally killed by IRA gunfire; one of Bertie’s sons is nearly killed; Annie’s first romance becomes another casualty of the controversy surrounding Bertie, whom Annie holds responsible until she (unconvincingly) comes around. Few films provide a grimmer view of the price of political activism in a combustible environment. Remarkably, Bertie considers herself apolitical. Her bottom line is this: “I have a right to bring up my children in peace.”
     Roger Michell’s steadily intriguing, now and then gripping Titanic Town, following his Austen Persuasion (1995), is about tolls exacted for trying to make a positive difference. In a terrifying scene outdoors at night, Bertie is snatched, has a gun put to her head, and is warned to cease her activism. In an even more trenchant scene, the camera departs from the McPhelimy home one night, where family and friends sing “Danny Boy,” to a Brit in attack gear hunched outside as a trace of the singing can still be heard.

B(U)Y THE BOOK

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