Some Mother's Son
1996, R, 112 min. Directed by Terry George. Starring Helen Mirren, Fionnula Flanagan, David O’Hara, Aidan Gillen.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Jan. 31, 1997
Ireland, the first colony in the British Empire, is no closer to social or political assimilation today than when it came under Crown rule 800 years ago. At regular intervals, the Irish people’s dogged struggle for independence has flared into warfare and ghastly carnage. The ancient conflict’s poisoned black heart is laid bare in this fictionalized account of a 1981 prison hunger strike that left 10 IRA inmates dead. With Some Mother’s Son, director/co-writer George (who also collaborated with writing partner Jim Sheridan on 1993’s In the Name of the Father), delivers a lucid, fiercely moral film that strikes an artful balance between the personal and political elements of the story. The principals are two young IRA “soldiers,” Gerard Quigley (Gillen) and Frank Higgins (O’Hara), and their mothers, Kathleen Quigley (Mirren) and Annie Higgins (veteran Irish stage actress Flanagan). When Frank and Gerard are jailed for their parts in a fatal attack on British troops, the pacifistic Kathleen is stunned because she’s strongly anti-IRA and hitherto ignorant of her son’s ties to the group. Earthy, passionate Annie, on the other hand, is IRA to the hilt. When Frank joins prison activist Bobby Sands in the hunger strike (the inmates refuse to wear prison uniforms because they see themselves as political prisoners, not criminals), she backs him despite her maternal fears. As days pass, the strikers become pawns in a worldwide P.R. battle between Sinn Fein and the Margaret Thatcher government. Chilled by the dull haze of imminent death in their gaunt sons’ eyes, the mothers shelve their ideological differences to jointly lobby in support of the strikers. Though George’s sentiments clearly lie with the Ulster rebels, he refrains from ultimate judgment in favor of one side or the other. In contrast to the masculine absolutism of In the Name of the Father and Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, Some Mother’s Son finds George disengaging from, and rising above, the killing fields to consider the pathology of war itself. At what point, he forces us to ask ourselves, does righteous fervor devolve into insanity? Do political convictions, however passionately held, imply a duty to sacrifice not only one’s own life but those of people we love? It’s a critical mode most associated with women, hence George’s decision to tell the story from a feminine viewpoint. Mirren, delivering an Oscar-worthy performance of astonishing reach, urgency, and emotional complexity, embodies these timeless questions in her character. In an unforgettable late scene, Kathleen watches in horror as talks between a British diplomat and a Gerry Adamsesque Sinn Fein spokesman collapse over the mostly semantic issue of whether prisoners are to be granted “rights” or “privileges.” The roar of angry male voices fades to silence and the camera locks onto Mirren’s face, in which confusion gives way to amazement, then to clear resolve about the decision she must make on behalf of her dying son. Flanagan, matching and complementing Mirren’s brilliance at every turn, presents Annie’s own choice as equally inescapable, leaving a final and wrenching personal judgment for the viewer to make. And a lingering question: Can humankind ever find in its collective soul a passion for peace as deep as that for the causes, both great and picayune, that we’ve butchered ourselves over throughout history? There’s very real doubt about that, despite heartening recent events such as the Hebron Accord. But it’s still a quest that must continue. A great, morally uncompromising film like Some Mother’s Son represents real hope for progress.