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'Titanic Town'

Here's to life: Wonderful 'Titanic Town' gets to the heart of real issues

Friday, September 01, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Of all the satanic evils of war, the greatest is its power of procreation. War begets war. World I begets World II begets Cold begets 'Nam. Little wars rage, blindly oblivious to the big ones, while domestic efforts to stop them beget civil war at home.

'Titanic Town'

RATING: R for language

STARRING: Julie Walters, Nuala O'Neill, Ciaran McMenamin

DIRECTOR: Roger Michell

CRITIC'S CALL: 3 1/2 stars


It's a very uncivil war being fought by Bernie McPhelimy in "Titanic Town," the dynamically true story of one woman's peace campaign in Northern Ireland and its repercussions on her family.

The Troubles are at a peak in 1972 when the McPhelimys with four kids unwittingly move into the war zone of West Belfast's Andersontown area, where random violence is on the rise. Wife Bernie (Julie Walters) is a tough cookie; husband Aidan (Ciaran Hinds) is a weak one, in and out of hospital. On the very first night in the new house, a gunman trades shots with a helicopter from their own front garden. Bernie stomps out in her nightgown to berate and shoo him away.

As the dangerous clashing of British patrols and IRA activity mounts outside, it falls to this strong mother to keep up family life and spirits (with the regular help of a Valium prescription). Bernie does so with feisty Irish humor and resignation. What you do with the Troubles is stay out of them. She does that, too -- until an innocent friend is caught in the crossfire, slain in broad daylight by an IRA bullet falsely pinned on the British. It's the unspeakable last straw. By God, against everyone's warnings, she'll speak of it.

Thus mobilized, the "simple housewife" with a total of one ally (wonderfully played by Aingeal Grehan) sets out to engage and enrage Protestant Ulster and Catholic chiefs alike, while extremists on each side view her contacts with the other as betrayal. Bricks through the window and death threats are delivered. Her children are beaten up and shunned at school.

The eldest -- smart, sensitive Annie (Nuala O'Neill) -- suffers most, her life made miserable and university hopes jeopardized by the fallout from Bernie's increasing prominence, culminating in a gripping declaration of hatred for her mother.

Love, with all its impermanence, comes to Annie's emotional rescue -- and to the film's crucial subplot -- in the form of a sweetly enigmatic young medical student (Ciaran McMenamin). Their heartfelt performances are second only to Julie Walters' in the humanizing and de-politicizing of the story. The latter's down-home Bernie -- in and out of her fabulous curlers -- is a powerhouse of maternal depth and determination you won't soon forget.

Superb skill with actors is becoming a trademark of director Roger Michell, whose gorgeous "Persuasion" (1995), in my humble opinion, is the most beautifully acted of all the Jane Austen film adaptations. "Titanic Town" is no less so, no less carefully crafted and soulfully realized down to the Cat Stevens songs that perfectly accompany the mood and the time.

Where's my soapbox? I stowed it someplace after that first paragraph and can't -- wait, here it is -- an old Ivory crate (99 44/100 percent pure like me), wobbly but good enough for a final harangue:

LIFE! -- comma, films about. Films about life. Why are they so natural and predominant in most of the world's cinema and so rare in ours? "Escapism" itself isn't the answer. From the start, here and abroad, movies have always been a way to escape, no matter how serious or silly the subjects. It's the real-life basis of the escape we've lost in favor of fantasy.

The Irish haven't because day and night they can't get around it and because they are late in the game coming to see, with Bernie McPhelimy's and "Titanic Town's" help, that the only political and personal solution to their Troubles is forgiveness.

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