We seem to be enthralled at the moment by alt-history stories about Nazis in England and America: the just-wrapped SS-GB on the BBC, The Man in the High Castle on Amazon. Perhaps they’re expressions of relief, of how easily such things might have happened; more likely we fear that similar nightmares are starting to happen now under slightly different guises. Yet it seems we’ve almost forgotten that there actually was a Nazi occupation of English-speaking places in WWII: the Channel Islands, the British Crown dependencies between England and France. We’ve almost forgotten because tales of this occupation — which lasted for five years, the full span of the war — are rarely told.
That gets rectified a bit with Another Mother’s Son, a major new British film, and the first real confrontation on the big screen with this era since 1951’s Appointment with Venus (aka Island Rescue), and I’m not sure if that counts, since it tells a lighthearted tale about evacuating a pedigree cow. (There have been a couple of British TV series, both from ITV: 1978–80’s Enemy at the Door, and 2004’s Island at War. They don’t seem to have had much cultural impact.) This is no fantasy, no imagined terror, and certainly no comedy: it’s the true story of Jersey grocer Louisa Gould, finally honored in 2010 as a British hero of WWII, and her real-life sheltering, from 1942 to 1944, of Russian POW Fyodr Polycarpovitch Burriy, who had escaped from a Nazi work camp on the island. (The Nazis used captured Russian soldiers as slave labor on the islands.)
If you don’t already know Gould and Burriy’s tale, don’t Google it before you see the film, lest you ruin for yourself the aching suspense of this sharply moving look at courage and sacrifice under the most trying of circumstances. It’s in the summer of 1942 when Louisa (a marvelously stiff-upper-lipped Jenny Seagrove) agrees to take in Fyodr (up-and-coming Bulgarian actor Julian Kostov: Ben-Hur, London Has Fallen) — whom she redubs Bill — from a neighbor who was already risking everything by hiding another Russian escapee: concealing two men would double the peril for all. (The excellent cast also features, as Louise’s coconspirators, John Hannah [The Wee Man, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor] and Amanda Abbington [Sherlock, Swinging with the Finkels].) There’s nothing in the least bit sentimental in the reasoning of Lou, a stalwart and no-nonsense woman, that some other mother in France or Poland would do the same for either of her own sons who are off fighting on the Continent: there’s only pragmatic acknowledgement of the work and duty and love of mothers. Taking care of a young man in need, a man fighting for his country on the same side as hers, is simply something that has to be done, like keeping everyone fed and showing up the Nazis.
The whole of Another Mother’s Son feels like that: it’s keeping calm and carrying on when things are at their worst, and getting your digs in where you can. Oh, there’s plenty of real feeling bubbling up underneath the deprivation and the drudgery of trying to keep life running along as normally as possible with the scarce food rationed and the Germans searching houses for contraband, like forbidden radios. But most of it is like the quietly underplayed yet still heart-wrenching scene in which Louisa happens to catch sight of Bill’s back, ravaged from whipping, while he takes a bath, and overhears him sobbing… perhaps with relief at having found some safety, perhaps with terror at all the unknowns of his situation. We don’t know, and neither does she, and she doesn’t ask. She just gets on with the practical matter of getting Bill settled. There simply is no time or energy to give in to deep feeling, lest it overwhelm. (There are moments in this movie, though, that emotionally overwhelmed me. I was glad of my packet of Kleenex.)
Directed by Christopher Menaul, Another Mother’s Son is much better, much more authentically involving, than his last film, the bland bohemian romance Summer in February. The script may have the cozy intimacy of a TV movie — and indeed, writer Jenny Lecoat, making her feature debut, has been primarily a writer of episodic TV — but it is using that as a frame for the biggest kind of human dramas, in which trying times bring out the best and the worst in people — yes, there are collaborators and informers here, the scum — and in which resistance to injustice is an absolute imperative. As a true story taking place among real Nazis, Another Mother’s Son might be even more relevant and more important than the fantasies we’ve been inventing of late.