Liam/A Love Divided
review by Gianni Truzzi, 5 October 2001

Baring the Cross

It feels odd to want to defend the Catholic Church, with its long, pain-inflicting history of rigid orthodoxy. One would have thought that writer Jimmy McGovern would have exorcised his demons in his controversial 1992 film, Priest, but apparently not. McGovern's newest story, Liam, followed closely on its heels with the release of the BBC-produced film, A Love Divided, adds to the church's indictment -- already lengthy with the burning and stoning of heretics, the Crusades, the Inquisition and the frequent bloodletting over doctrine -- the more prosaic terrors of Catholic school.

Eight-year-old Liam Sullivan's inability to get his words out in front of adults without stammering leaves him a quiet observer of his own life. In 1930's Liverpool, there's a lot to watch: His Dad loses his job at the shipyard, his elder sister and brother go to work and the bonds of the family, along with the rest of the community, unravel as the acrimony of poverty sets in.

Liam (Anthony Borrows) watches intently, but the reverse is true, too. "I'm watching you, Liam Sullivan," the policeman cautions when he catches him peering into the pub windows, where the women croon "Someone to Watch Over Me." The neighborhood mothers look after him, and his stern teacher rails over her students' "filthy, dirty souls" as they ready for their first communion. The priest strides the rows of desks to remind them with dark cruelty how Jesus is aware of them, since each of their sins "drives the nails deeper into the hands of Christ."

As Liam's Dad, Ian Hart gives a tragic performance as a working-class King Lear who loses everything to his anger and bigotry. Best known for his dynamic performance as John Lennon in Back Beat, Hart seems at home in the setting (albeit about ten years early) in which Lennon grew up. Quick to find a scapegoat, he blames the Jews who own the shipyard and the Irish immigrants (despite his own surname) who compete with him for wages. He resents his own son Con (David Hart), who becomes the major breadwinner, and his growing rage drives him to the camaraderie of the local black-shirted fascists.

Complicating matters -- and threading the story to its final disaster -- is the job Liam's teenaged sister Teresa (Megan Burns) takes as a maid for the Jewish shipyard owners. "No cleaning toilets," Liam's Mum (Claire Hackett) tells her, trying to retain some family dignity. "No daughter of mine cleans another woman's toilet." Of course, that's exactly what Teresa must do, but not before clumsily denying she is a Catholic to secure the job. Her crisis of conscience only worsens when she discovers the lady of the house has a lover, and pays Teresa with extra favors to carry messages between them.

The church, meanwhile, seems incapable of even offering solace. The only solution the priest can offer Teresa is to quit her job.  When she emerges crying from the confessional just as Liam did before her, their mother begins her confession with "Father, what have you been saying to my kids?"

Director Stephen Frears invariably makes films that are interesting (My Beautiful Launderette and Prick Up Your Ears), even when they fail as disappointingly as Liam. Frears washes his scenes with the yellow of old film stock, trapping memory like flies in amber, and he offers cinematic truth to the period. Other critics have compared Liam to Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes for its depression-era UK setting, but it really falls within the childhood memoir movie tradition of Truffaut's 400 Blows or John Boorman's Hope and Glory. Unlike those better films, Frears and McGovern refuse to stay within the bounds of the child's point of view. We witness Ian's Dad in the pub, Teresa at work -- places Liam does not go -- and view them with an adult comprehension of what's going on. We're kept outside of Liam's head, and made to wait to know why he is so disturbed by seeing his mother naked. Frears never commits to deciding whether Liam is observer or observed, and its wonderful performances are diminished by a story that sprawls too widely to satisfy.

A Love Divided is based on the real events of a family dispute that exploded into religious war in County Wexford, Ireland, in 1957. When Sean Cloney (Liam Cunningham), a Catholic, and Sheila Kelly (Orla Brady), a Protestant, got married, they made a vow to each other: "We musn't let anything come between us...you and me against the world." What they didn't count on, though, was the strength of the "ne temere" pledge that a Protestant partner in a mixed-religion marriage had to take requiring the children to be brought up Catholic.

For years, Sean and their two daughters obediently walk up the hill to the Catholic church, while Sheila joins her parents and sister down the hill at the Protestant church. By the time their eldest daughter, Eileen, is school-age, Sheila insists that she and Sean should decide where she goes to school. Father Stafford (Tony Doyle) gruffly insists otherwise. "There are no minds to be made up," he decrees. "You made a solemn vow the day I married you. That means she goes to [the Catholic school] St. Bridget's."

Sheila's insistence on her rights as a parent threaten to expose the tensions the town has papered over with false amity. The Protestant minister counsels her to go along, as they all do to keep things peaceful. "What's wrong with you?" demands Sheila's sister, enumerating the joys being threatened. "I don't know," Sheila puzzles back. She's lived with the oppression of minority status for so long she can't recognize it.

Father Stafford's pressure on Sean drives a rift between the couple, and Sheila reels at his repudiation of their private promise. Impulsively, she runs away with the two girls, and what began as a marital row grows into a public scandal, as Father Stafford, with the support of the bishop, declares a boycott of all Protestants until Sheila's whereabouts are revealed and the girls returned.

Some Irish observers date the decline of the Catholic church's power to the boycott in Wexford's Fethard-on-the-Sea, prodding modern Ireland to become a secular, pluralistic country. The events of this tiny village got the attention of the world, with a write-up in Time magazine sparking the couple's eventual reconciliation when Sheila read it in her haven in Scotland's Orkney Islands.

Like Liam, A Love Divided is a story of catastrophe brought on by prejudice, and they both lay much, even all of the blame at the pre-reformed church's altar. The key difference -- and what makes A Love Divided a more watchable film -- is that the latter offers the promise of redemption through love. And, after all, isn't that what Jesus (at least after Vatican II) would do?

Liam

Directed by:
Stephen Frears

Starring:
Ian Hart
Claire Hackett
Anthony Borrows
David Hart
Megan Burns
Anne Reid
Russell Dixon
Julia Deakin
Andrew Schofield
Bernadette Shortt

Written by:
Jimmy McGovern

Rated:
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying
parent or adult
guardian.

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A Love Divided

Directed by:
Sydney Macartney

Starring:
Orla Brady
Liam Cunningham
Sarah Bolger
Nicole Bohan
Brian McGrath
Ali White

Written by:
Deirdre Dowling
Gerry Gregg
Stuart Hepburn

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
yet been rated.

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