Liam/A Love Divided
review by Gianni Truzzi, 5 October
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
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.
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
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
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?
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
A Love Divided
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
yet been rated.