FROM THE ARCHIVES: Some Mother's Son
Reviewed by Gary Crowdus 

Produced by Jim Sheridan, Arthur Lappin and Edward Burke; directed by Terry George; screenplay by Terry George and Jim Sheridan; cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson; edited by Craig McKay; music by Bill Whelan; starring Helen Mirren, Fionnula Flanagan, Aidan Gillen, Ciarán Hinds, John Lynch and Tom Hollander. DVD, color, 112 min., a Warner Bros. Archive release.

Only a few films have been made about the Irish Hunger Strikes in 1981, when Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoners in Northern Ireland launched the final, desperate phase of a series of protests demanding that the British Government recognize their status as political prisoners rather than common criminals. Les Blair’s H3 (2001) portrays the events almost exclusively from the prisoners’ perspective. Maeve Murphy’s Silent Grace (2001) tells the little-known story of the role of women IRA inmates in the events. Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) downplayed the political context in favor of a visceral, sensory experience of what it was like to live or work in such brutalizing conditions, and the gruesome details of how hunger strikers literally wasted away and died for their cause.

The first and indubitably still the best of these films is Terry George’s Some Mother’s Son (1996) because it is the most successful in both explicating the political issues involved and dramatizing the broader human consequences. As such, it is a work that can both inform and emotionally engage a general viewing audience that may not even have a particular interest in the subject.

Before his directorial debut with this film, George was best known as the Academy Award-nominated coauthor, with Jim Sheridan, of the screenplay for In the Name of the Father(1993). When George subsequently proposed to Sheridan his previously-written script for SMS as a follow-up project, Sheridan, perceiving the passion and insight George brought to the subject, urged him to direct the film himself. The film’s remarkable authenticity, in fact, derives largely from the Belfast-born George’s personal experiences, having grown up in Northern Ireland during the “Troubles” and served two terms in jail for IRA-related activities.

Some Mother’s Son is no simple-minded, pro-IRA screed, however, as many might expect. As suggested by its title, the film’s preeminently humanist concerns are expressed through the differing reactions of the mothers of two Provisional IRA prisoners on the hunger strike. Annie Higgins (Fionnula Flanagan) is a farmer from a longtime Republican family who is fiercely proud of her son’s IRA involvement. Kathleen Quigley (Helen Mirren) is a high-school teacher with pacifist political views who, upon her son’s arrest, is shocked to learn that he is a member of an IRA active service unit. The clash of the divergent political perspectives of the two women, and how their beliefs are tested and altered during their ordeal, becomes the means for a gradually developing friendship, one that creates a mutual sense of respect despite the different choices they ultimately make.

The film’s most valuable contribution is that it doesn’t just dramatize the political struggle between the IRA and the British Government. It also details the political infighting within each camp—between the Catholic Church and the “Provos,” for example, on one side and between politicians in the often-competing bureaucracies of the Foreign Office and the Northern Ireland Office. For all factions, the political and religious disputes essentially boil down to a public-relations struggle for the moral high ground, from which they can most effectively press the legitimacy of their political positions.

Both sides of the conflict are shown to be ruthless and, when necessary, completely unscrupulous in the pursuit of their respective political agendas. Caught between warring representatives of the Catholic Church and the IRA, Kathleen Quigley, the film’s moral focus, learns that the basic issues of humanity and concern for individual human lives have become lost in a miasma of self-righteous discourse, from which she finally realizes she must disassociate herself in order to save the life of her son. The British Tory press’s dismissal of Some Mother’s Son as a “pro-IRA movie” is patently ridiculous, for example, given that the film reveals that the IRA robs banks to support its activities, assassinates prison guards in front of their own families, and uses funerals for political propaganda in order to compete with the Catholic Church for influence within the community.

The film’s cast is firstrate, featuring, in addition to Helen Mirren and Fionnula Flanagan, Ciarán Hinds as the opportunistic head of Sinn Fein in Belfast, Aidan Gillen as Kathleen’s naïve but impassioned son Gerard, John Lynch as the iconic Bobby Sands, and Tom Hollander as the supremely arrogant, ideologically driven political strategist of the Northern Ireland Office (many viewers seeing SMS for the first time will immediately recognize Hollander as the same actor who portrays slimy, cutthroat merchant Lord Cutler Beckett in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies).

Given the inevitable necessity, in depicting such complex events in less than two hours, of narrative shortcuts and dramatic liberties, Some Mother’s Son is nevertheless just about as politically insightful and emotionally moving a portrayal of the specific issues of the IRA Hunger Strikes, as well as the more universal humanist issues they raise, as is ever likely to be made. The film is enhanced by an outstanding musical score by Bill (Riverdance) Whelan, so don’t be surprised if, once you’ve seen the film, you find yourself searching amazon.com to see if the soundtrack is available on CD (it is). Right after that, we urge you to either check your collection of Cineaste back numbers or to order a copy of our 1997 (Vol. XXIII, No. 1) issue, which includes a fascinating interview with Terry George about the film.

Gary Crowdus is the Editor-in-Chief of Cineaste.

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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.