The Austin Chronicle

Titanic Town

Not rated, 96 min. Directed by Karyn Kusama. Starring Ray Santiago, Santiago Douglas, Paul Calderon, Jaime Tirelli, Michelle Rodriguez.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Sept. 29, 2000

The images are classic surrealist sight gags. You first see Monopoly-board clusters of shopping malls and tract homes, each with their tight emerald fringes of obsessively tended carpet grass. These neighborhoods, you think, could blend seamlessly into the vast exurban sprawl of Greater Austin/Pflugerville/Round Rock. Then the discordant elements begin to emerge: the bombed-out cars lining the curbs, the distant clatter of small-arms fire, the insect-like scuttling of uniformed soldiers in camouflage paint. This is the modern war zone of Belfast, Northern Ireland, circa 1972 ‹ the setting for Titanic Town, an unassumingly impressive new film by Roger Michell (Notting Hill). Based on Mary Costello's novel, it tells the true story of working-class mother Bernie McPhelimy (Walters), whose one-woman crusade on behalf of innocent noncombatants marked a critical step in the winding down of Northern Ireland's meat-grinding three-century war of attrition with Great Britain. Bernie's cause at first sounds utterly noncontroversial. All she wants is for Irish Republic Army snipers to refrain from shooting up the streets during the daylight hours when civilians are in the line of fire. Yet even this minimal request, born of a mother's righteous concern for her kids' safety, is enough to get Bernie branded as a traitor by IRA-sympathizing neighbors and to subject her family to daily threats and harassment. Walters' dominating performance, as in Educating Rita and Sister, My Sister, is largely a triumph of raw power over subtlety. And yet where nuance is required -- scenes where less-appealing notes of narcissism and sanctimony are allowed into her character -- she displays a surprising finesse that rescues Bernie from being a generic movie-of-the-week saint. This is crucial because, in many respects, there's only one film about Northern Ireland. In movie after movie dealing with The Troubles, we see large-spirited seekers after peace crucified for their efforts to break a mindless cycle of atavistic violence. By bravely embracing the moral and dramatic ambiguity of their characters, Walters, O'Neill (as Bernie's sensitive teenage daughter), and Hinds (as her somewhat cowardly and ineffectual husband) manage to hold at bay the dispiriting sense of déjà vu that permeates so many of these films about soulful paddies belting out “Danny Boy” with pints of Guinness in one hand and rocket launchers in the other. These complex characterizations apparently reflect a conscious decision by Michell to keep his mitts off his story's obvious hot buttons -- a tack that causes Titanic Town to feel both less melodramatic and less viscerally powerful than movies like In the Name of the Father and Some Mother's Son. But these comparisons may be moot anyway. My guess is that, given the well-trodden ground being covered here, a break from tradition was essential to stave off emotional fatigue on the part of the audience. With its understated moral power, generous spirit, and bracing flashes of dark humor, Titanic Town offers a fresh, subtly illuminating take on an ancient sorrow measured in centuries and haunted by the spirits of countless innocent dead.

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