A Love Divided
1999, NR, 98 min. Directed by Sydney Macartney. Starring Orla Brady, Liam Cunningham, Brian Mcgrath, Ali White, Tony Doyle, Peter Caffrey.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 3, 2001
The “love divided” that the title so soppily refers to is the one between Sean and Sheila Cloney (Cunningham and Brady), a real-life married couple in 1957 Fethard-on-Sea, County Wexford, Ireland. They're terribly in love but ideologically conflicted (he's Catholic, she's Protestant). After getting married (three times, actually: civil, Protestant, and Catholic services) the two make a pact to stick together no matter who or what tries to come between them -- Sean and Sheila against the world. It's an agreement Sheila believes to supersede the ne temere contract she signed (a Catholic requirement for mixed-religion marriages that decrees all children will be raised Catholic). But when it's time for eldest daughter Eileen to enroll in school, a small war erupts over the girl, between husband and wife, Catholics and Protestants. Father Stafford (Doyle, beady-menacing in a molelike sort of way) insists upon the Catholic schooling of Eileen, Sheila bucks, and Sean fails to take a stand against the priest. In protest, she sneaks away to Belfast in the middle of the night with their daughters to demand a divorce (even though she still loves Sean) all the while concealing the children's whereabouts from their father. Back in County Wexford, the town splits violently over the issue, escalating to such a point that Father Stafford instates a Catholic boycott on all Protestant businesses (the then-highly publicized Fethard Boycott) and violence and vandalism frequently break out. The story itself is a fascinating one, of one woman who went to extreme measures to test her husband and challenge the single-minded authority of the Catholic church. However, the film version of the story is a mucky affair (lolling green hills and “quaint” village scapes aside: Ay, Ireland! Why must you forever be reduced to picturesque stereotype!). The actors do a fine, if unsoulful, job, but the real problem with A Love Divided is its unwillingness to unromanticize its heroes. To do what Sheila Cloney did -- a truly unthinkable act, really, to steal one's children away because of a disagreement, coupled with the titanic job of taking on the Catholic church -- she had to have been a remarkably complex, fierce, stubborn-mule kind of woman. But, as scripted, she's too wispy, too uncomplicated. Occasionally, Brady's Sheila will get a mean spark in her eye when she's challenged, and this, of course, translates in movie-speak to “The gal's got pluck!” Pluck isn't enough. Macartney and writers Stuart Hepburn, Deidre Dowling, and Gerry Gregg need to also show the obstinacy, maybe foolishness, of a woman willing to trash her otherwise idyllic marriage all to prove a point -- that point, by the way, isn't that Eileen shouldn't go to the Catholic school, which, by Sheila's admission, is a perfectly good school; the point simply is that Sheila should get to decide. And of course she should, although it begins to feel like a senseless tradeoff when storefronts are bombed out as a result and her father is terrorized (so badly it pushes his toupee halfway down his head, in a regrettably amusing moment). By the time the boycott ends, men have been badly beaten, businesses bankrupted, and half the citizenry of Fethard-on-Sea subjected to tyranny while the other half must live with having known the very worst versions of themselves. And yet no one seems to blame the Cloneys for starting a war -- just one more gap in logic for a film that refuses to dig any deeper than the surface. Sheila Cloney was indeed a hero. But in order to be a hero, one needn't be inhuman. The crusader would have been just as heroic without the filmmakers' application of a glossy top coat, sure to fend off any dents or imperfections.