review by Dan Lybarger, 15 September 2000
South African-born director
Roger Mitchell is known in the United States for lighthearted fare
like Persuasion and Notting
Hill, so it’s a pleasant surprise to discover that he can
handle weightier subjects with equal aplomb.
Mitchell’s offhanded approach to storytelling is a
considerable asset that prevents Titanic Town from playing like other films on the conflict in
Northern Ireland. The Boxer
and In the Name of the Father
were solid movies that dealt with the Troubles in a grim, solemn
manner. Titanic Town,
however, seems fresh because it brims with a pungent gallows humor.
Set in 1972 Belfast, the film,
which is based on Mary Costello’s autobiographical novel,
initially treats the war with bemused detachment. Newly arrived in
the Andersonville section of Belfast, the McPhelimy family find
quickly themselves stuck in the middle of the fighting. British
tanks roll through the streets, and the evenings are interrupted by
gunfire. Curiously, it doesn’t seem to phase Bernie McPhelimy
(Julie Walters, Intimate
Relations), who chases an IRA gunman out of her yard because his
presence endangers her family. When British soldiers demand to
search her home, she becomes upset not because her house has been
invaded but because she’s worried the soldiers will find her
husband Aidan (Persuasion’s
Ciaran Hinds) and her four children to be slovenly.
Bernie’s attitude abruptly
changes when a close friend of hers dies while watching Bernie’s
son. The other locals are content to blame the British despite the
fact that the woman was actually killed by a stray IRA bullet.
Bernie begins attending peace meetings and publicly blames the IRA.
Soon bricks are flying through her window. Bernie doesn’t give up
and goes on the radio asking to meet with IRA members to find out
what happened and to convince them not to attack during the day when
bystanders can get caught in the crossfire.
When the IRA actually honors her
request for a meeting, Bernie winds up becoming a mediator between
them and the British government. She instantly becomes a darling of
the local media and a pariah at home. At first many of the locals
assume she’s an informer, making Bernie’s children outcasts at
school. Her adventures wind up aggravating Aidan’s ulcer, sending
him to the hospital. Her daughter Annie (Nuala O’Neill in a
terrific debut) suffers the worst, however. Annie can’t understand
why her mother goes on television claiming to speak on behalf of her
children when her children would like her to quit.
Mitchell and screenwriter Anne
Devlin, a Belfast native, manage to make Bernie’s quest seem naïve
but not foolish. Walters, who normally plays comic roles, imbues
Bernie with the proper dignity to make one root for her efforts even
if they might ultimately be doomed. Mitchell and Devlin avoid moving
Titanic Town into outright
satire and paint most of the characters sympathetically. While often
quite funny, Titanic Town
avoids ridicule. While many of the locals are fanatical
nationalists, the IRA members she meets are cooperative, and some of
the British soldiers are depicted as frightened outsiders. Titanic
Town, which takes its title from the fact that the ill-fated
ship was built in Belfast, is consistently believable and compelling
because it offers hints that others may later follow Bernie’s path
but with more success.
Oliver Ford Davies