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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Titanic Town (review)

Fightin’ Irish

The Irish are their own worst enemies. Sharply divided by nitpicky differences in religion, the Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland cannot unite against their common foe, the English — the Protestants want to remain part of the United Kingdom, while the Catholics favor unification with the Republic of Ireland. And the Irish Republican Army uses the very people for whom it is supposedly fighting as de facto hostages and cannon fodder in its terrorist war with the British army occupying Northern Ireland. Events came to a head in the early 1970s, in the outbreak of terrorism, rioting, and general mayhem that came to be known as The Troubles.

“The Troubles” — such a nice, understated, Irish way of describing random sniper murder of neighbor by neighbor, the betrayal of life-long friendships, and the appalling disregard for basic civil and human rights. In Belfast in 1972, one woman finally got fed up with living in a war zone and decided to do something about it.
Bernie McPhelimy (Julie Walters) doesn’t consider herself political, but in Belfast’s explosive atmosphere, speaking out for peace is tantamount to treason — if she’s asking the IRA to stop shooting, she must be pro-British. Bernie is the heart of Titanic Town, based on Mary Costello’s “autobiographical novel” and directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill), and her story is full of the tragic ironies of the Irish struggle for independence.

Belfast is where the Titanic was built, and the city itself seems as doomed as the great ocean liner. Andersontown is a battlefield. The Belfast estate (what we’d called a housing development) on which Bernie, her husband, Aidan (Ciarán Hinds: Oscar and Lucinda), and their four children live is strafed by helicopters at night, and shots ring out at all hours of the day as IRA snipers try to pick off the British soldiers patrolling the streets. After a young British soldier is shot outside the McPhelimys’ house, the army swoops down, tanks and trucks rolling across lawns, soldiers rounding up suspected IRA supporters in the neighborhood and searching houses without warrants.

Baldly terrifying and blackly humorous, Titanic Town juxtaposes comfortable domesticity with shocking, sudden violence, as must be the case when a war is being fought where people live. Little girls cannot walk home with their Irish dance trophies proudly held high without getting caught in a crossfire — and yet Bernie can tell her 16-year-old daughter, Annie (Nuala O’Neill), to go make the beds before the British soldiers toss the house. It’s a cozy maternal dignity that drives Bernie to begin a petition for peace between the IRA and the British army — it may be her close friend who’s killed by an IRA sniper as she was walking home, but it could well have been her son, who had been walking with the friend.

Irish tribalism rears its ugly head again as the McPhelimy children find themselves ostracized for their mother’s vocal opposition to the fighting in the streets — she’s trying to improve the lives of her neighbors in Andersontown and throughout Belfast, while the IRA hides behind families in bringing their fight to a housing estate, but Bernie is the one vilified. As Bernie and Annie expand their horizons — Mom through politics and daughter through romance, as she falls in love with a medical student (Ciarán McMenamin) — both will discover that friends and enemies are often one and the same.

When Titanic Town was in preproduction in 1997, it was decided that the situation in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was still too volatile to shoot a film about The Troubles there. It’s a sad commentary on the noble and humanitarian efforts of people like Bernie McPhelimy — and the schizophrenic Irish character — that not much has changed in 25 years.

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MPAA: not rated

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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