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 about a grass-roots political campaigner in coaxing not only pathos but irony and warm humor from a tragic situation should ensure a small sprinkling of theatrical sales and wide TV berths.
Bernie McPhelimy (Walters) and her family move into a housing estate home in Catholic West Belfast during the early 1970s, at the height of the trouble in Northern Ireland. Helicopters, tanks and flying bullets are an inescapable reality, existing side-by-side with normal neighborhood life. But when an old friend is caught in 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, creating animosity and trouble for her kids at school through her often misconstrued comments about the IRA and her perceived willingness to rub shoulders with Protestants. With help only from a single co-campaigner (Aingeal Grehan), she becomes a mediator between the IRA and the British government. Despite her efforts being 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 at times 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, or fumbling in her handbag during a meeting with the Brits for the IRA’s list of conditions.
In demanding dramatic scenes, Walters brings real heart to the role, battling 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 is paralleled with her mother’s 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.