A fictional story centered on the events surrounding the death, during a hunger strike, of IRA member Bobby Sands, who was elected to Parliament while in an Ulster prison, pic takes off with the get-tough policies against the IRA in 1979 from England’s newly elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Young Catholics Gerard Quigley (Aidan Gillen) and Frank Higgins (David O’Hara) are quickly apprehended and sentenced to long prison terms for a spectacular rocket attack against a British army vehicle and the attempted murder of a soldier.
While the boys join their fel-
low prisoners in considering themselves political prisoners and refusing to wear normal convict garb, their mothers are drawn slowly together despite their vastly different political stances. Kathleen Quigley (Helen Mirren) is a schoolteacher adamantly opposed to violence, who didn’t even know her son was politically active. The tough-minded Annie Higgins (Fionnula Flanagan) however, has already had one son killed by the British and lives for the day the limeys leave the Emerald Isle for good.
As Kathleen is ever so slowly brought around to the necessity of political activism, the pic dwells at length on the protest schemes of the prisoners, who all adopt mangy Jesus Christ-like martyr looks and delight in upping the ante against the Brits. The film also focuses on the nasty machinations of the Thatcherites, personified by yuppie-scum functionary Farn-sworth (Tom Hollander). Much as George and Sheridan might feel the need to bring some heart to the picture via the mothers, their real interest obviously rests in the ins and outs of politics.
So while the filmmakers’ p.o.v. is easy to decipher, it is more than they can expect for most audiences to get worked up about these rather distant events as presented here, even if the troubles persist to this day.
The mothers Quigley and Higgins are simply not made interesting enough to draw one deeply into their feelings; they are defined almost exclusively by their reactions to the distress of their sons’ predicaments.
Flanagan’s tough hide and gruff manner as the uncompromising mum suggest depths of experience and pain, but Mirren’s more liberal, conciliatory figure simply isn’t very compelling, despite the major transition she makes. Their boys are also defined overwhelmingly by their political convictions and ideological steadfastness, with few nuances or character wrinkles to give them texture.
The drama does take on added weight in the wake of the prisoners’ hunger strike, Sands’ election and death, and a botched negotiation to end the standoff , all of which has an impact as much documentary as dramatic. An emotional climax is reached with the fates of Gerard and Frank. The situation depicted is tragic, to be sure, but viewer reaction is likely to be distanced by the largely historical and political take on the proceedings, and tempered by the complex realities of the entire Northern Ireland problem.
The pic has a vivid, realistic feel due to the location shooting, but George’s direction is pretty cut and dried, devoted mostly to getting information across in the most straightforward manner possible. The result isn’t dull, exactly, but nothing that happens is terribly surprising, either.
Tech contributions are solid if unexceptional.