Julie Walters gives a corker of a performance as a feisty Belfast housewife-turned-peace activist in “Titanic Town,” which is based on Mary Costello’s autobiographical novel. While recent films about the Northern Irish conflict have floundered in many territories, the skill of this touching drama to coax not only pathos but irony and warm humor out of a tragic situation should ensure a small sprinkling of theatrical sales and wide TV berths.
Bernie McPhelimy (Walters) and her family move during the height of the trouble in Northern Ireland into a housing estate home in a Catholic neighborhood of a West Belfast town famous as the place where the Titanic was built. Helicopters, tanks and flying bullets exist side-by-side with normal neighborhood life. But when an old friend is caught in the crossfire and killed right in front of her son, Bernie’s outspokenness leads her to a meeting of an ineffectual women’s peace group.
Ignoring the objections of her stoical husband, Aidan (Ciaran Hinds), Bernie forms her own splinter group, which creates animosity and trouble for her kids at school due to her often misconstrued comments about the IRA and her perceived willingness to rub shoulders with Protestants. With help from a single co-campaigner (Aingeal Grehan), Bernie becomes a mediator between the IRA and the British government. Although her efforts are cold-shouldered at first, she eventually gathers 25,000 signatures on a petition to limit the fighting in residential areas.
Bernie’s campaign is characterized more by its optimism than by any concrete chance of success, but Walters makes her struggle heroic, showing a simple woman of great determination. The actress has tended toward caricature in some of her comedy roles. But she keeps the balance just right here, amusingly hurrying her daughter upstairs to make the beds before a military search; admiring the drapes at IRA headquarters; displaying the brick thrown through her window among her cheesy ornaments, and fumbling in her handbag for the IRA’s list of conditions during a meeting with the Brits.
In demanding dramatic scenes, Walters brings real heart to Bernie as she battles the increasing resentment of her family, the hostility and violence of the community and the growing awareness of her failure to bring about change.
Director Roger Michell (“Persuasion”) draws strong work from the entire cast, notably Hinds, whose character plays second fiddle but is nonetheless a quiet, forceful presence, angrily suspecting that his wife is being used by both sides. Newcomer Nuala O’Neill is appealing as Bernie’s daughter, whose discovery of love parallels her mother’s discovery of a political conscience and purpose. Period production values are fine, and Trevor Jones’ guitar score enhances the satisfying drama’s warm tone and very human angles.