A Sinking Feeling

Taking on the subject of the Irish Troubles, Titanic Town runs into some troubles of its own

Whatever one might believe about the past centuries of English oppression of the Irish, one thing is sure: The Irish haven't been shortchanged on the screen. From the Easter Rising to the more recent Troubles, the conflict has been a film staple, with sympathies heavily, though not universally, aligned on the side of the Irish. In the Name of the Father is one of the best examples of the predominant trend; Patriot Games, with its supernaturally relentless and vicious IRA villains, falls at the other end of the spectrum.

Titanic Town, a 1998 production that is only now reaching American theaters, presents yet another view of the Troubles. (The film's title is unfortunate, suggesting a lame attempt to capitalize on that other Titanic film: In one brief, awkward scene, a character explains that "this is where the great ship was built by poor Irish laborers," after which it is never referred to again.)Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Persuasion) seems to be striving for a perfectly evenhanded presentation, but of course there can be no such thing: Evenhandedness is in the eye of the beholder or, more accurately, in relation to where one sits politically on the issue.

The film is set in 1972 in Andersonstown, a district of West Belfast. For reasons that are never quite clear, the McPhelimy family has just moved into a new flat in a pleasant working-class housing project. "When I was 16," Annie McPhelimy (Nuala O'Neill) informs us in voice-over, "my mother became a celebrity." It is a claim made with both pride and irony, as subsequent events show.

Julie Walters plays Bernie McPhelimy in Titanic Town, basically a one-woman show of Walters' acting talent but with little new perspective on the Irish-British conflict.
Liam Daniel
Julie Walters plays Bernie McPhelimy in Titanic Town, basically a one-woman show of Walters' acting talent but with little new perspective on the Irish-British conflict.

Indeed, Annie's mother, Bernie (Julie Walters), starts out as a perfectly average Belfast housewife, trying to raise four children with little help from her loving husband, Aidan (Ciarán Hinds), who is sidelined by poor health. Bernie may be a Catholic and a patriotic Irishwoman, but she is just as fed up with IRA snipers endangering civilians as she is with the British troops who occupy the neighborhood. The snipers' cause may be just, but that doesn't give them the right to shoot in crowded local spots at midday, endangering her children and friends.

All Bernie wants is peace, but she is not the most politically savvy person in the world. Her willingness to speak out against both sides is quickly seized upon by the media, who make it sound as if she is simply anti-IRA. In no time, Bernie and her family are ostracized by much of the community, though not, it seems, by the local IRA officials, who realize her actual position and sense an opportunity to use her new fame to further their own goals.

She organizes a women's peace drive, trying to at least limit the constant gunfire to nighttime, when most of the citizens are safely in their homes. She makes some advances, but when it becomes clear that the Brits are also exploiting her, even her supporters turn against her. As a result, her children are exposed to greater danger and harm than they would have been had she held her tongue.

Michell and screenwriter Anne Devlin (working from Mary Costello's autobiographical novel) don't take a simple view of their protagonist. Bernie seems to be a woman on a sincere mission, but there may be some truth as well in her daughter's accusations of egocentricity and self-aggrandizement. And, while no one is going to come out against "peace" in the abstract, it's easy to see how Bernie's actions could do more harm than good. Bernie's emergence as a firebrand is intercut with her daughter's emergence as an adult: Annie discovers love with a mysterious young medical student (Ciarán McMenamin), but her mother's activities get in the way of any sort of normal relationship.

The central conflict is a lesser version of the problems at the heart of A World Apart (1988) and Daniel (1983), and the filmmakers do not add much new. Perhaps Michell's greatest accomplishment in the movie is in creating a sense of being there. We feel totally immersed in a surreal situation -- a cheery, almost suburban neighborhood patrolled by tanks and trigger-happy soldiers; frumpy homemakers whose small talk about gardens is drowned out by gunshots.

Despite able support from Hinds and O'Neill, this is basically a one-woman show for Walters, older and almost unrecognizable as the star of Personal Services and Educating Rita. She portrays Bernie as a maternal force of nature without smoothing off all the rough, less sympathetic edges.

But it's hard to know just how much to trust Titanic Town. In some ways, Bernie may be a metaphor for the film itself. That is, it seems to be simply, happily coming out for "peace" -- taking no side and damning the excesses of both sides. An argument can be made that this is an inherently pro-British position, a defense of the status quo that chooses to ignore the loathsome history. It is generally the privilege of the party doing the dominating to speak soothingly about "peace" -- from which there would be everything to gain and nothing to lose. It's tougher to be so magnanimous when you're the underdog.

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