Acclaimed Irish documentarian Tom Collins makes his feature directorial debut with “Bogwoman,” a well-intentioned, intermittently powerful portrait of the political awakening of an Irish woman in the 1960s. Lacking sharp focus on the central figure and rambling in its historical treatment, this picture may satisfy Irish viewers and is likely to play well on the small screen, but will not excite audiences in countries where there’s no strong interest in politically oriented cinema.
“Bogwoman” bears thematic resemblance to the recent and far superior “Some Mother’s Son,” which despite its recognizable cast (which included Helen Mirren) was a commercial failure in the U.S. Spanning a decade in the tumultuous history of Ireland, the film chronicles the rich journey — both geographic and ideological — of a young woman as she gains political consciousness and joins the barricades with her militant son, Joseph (Darren McHugh).
Story begins in 1958, when Maureen (Rachael Dowling) crosses the Irish border, moving to the Bogside of Derry in Northern Ireland, where she tries to build a new life for herself and her young, fatherless son. She soon marries the good-natured Barry (Peter Mullan) and finds herself trapped in a conservative marriage in which she is defined mainly by the number of children she bears.
The liveliest sequences detail Maureen’s everyday life in the community, where she gradually develops meaningful friendships with other strong-willed women, such as Mrs. D. (Noelle Brown) and Annie (Maria McDermottore). The yarn captures well the segregation that prevailed within such marriages at the time, the taboo on contraceptives and the daily struggle against poverty and harsh living conditions.
The changing political context is vividly conveyed through the use of historical (black-and-white) footage of bloody demonstrations and riots that polarized the region. Story climaxes and ends in 1968, with the arrival of British soldiers as peace-keepers in Northern Ireland.
The film suggests, but doesn’t adequately show, that Joseph’s involvement in the Northern Irish conflict had a catalytic effect on his mother’s political engagement. But pic lacks a deeper, more detailed and critical examination of Maureen’s evolving sense of political identity (something along the lines of “Norma Rae”) that would lend it the epic-heroic dimensions it strives for. Rather than centering on Maureen’s transformation, the screenplay meanders too much between the domestic and political arenas, providing so much background detail that the heroine gets lost in the larger web of events.
Nonetheless, Dowling makes for a most likable and engaging protagonist. A strong supporting ensemble, including Sean McGinley, one of Ireland’s foremost stage actors, helps to elevate the film a notch or two above its digressive writing and routine direction.