[Screen It]

(2000) (Julie Walters, Nuala O'Neill) (Not Rated)

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Drama: A mother takes on the IRA, the British government and the varied reactions of her neighbors as she hopes to put an end to the violence in her 1970s era Belfast neighborhood.
It's 1972 and Bernie McPhelimy (JULIE WALTERS) has moved into a Belfast neighborhood with her sickly husband, Aidan (CIARÁN HINDS) and their four children -- Annie (NUALA O'NEILL), Thomas (JAMES LOUGHRAN), Brendan (BARRY LOUGHRAN) and young Sinead (ELIZABETH DONAGHY). Although they receive a warm welcome from friends and family, Bernie soon realizes they've moved into the neighborhood battleground between the IRA and the British military forces that are present in an attempt to control Ireland.

Despite the inherent dangers, most everyone tries to get on with their lives and avoid the sporadic violence and British military raids on their homes. That is, except for Bernie who has no qualms confronting and publicly reprimanding the soldiers and guerilla gunmen. When a random bullet strikes down her best friend, she becomes more vocal and even ends up on TV demanding peace.

Her comments stir up a maelstrom of criticism and threats from the IRA, the British soldiers and even her neighbors, and create problems for her family, including Annie who finds her budding romance with Owen (CIARÁN MCMENAMIN), a premed student, suddenly endangered. Despite the mounting repercussions and threats, Bernie, with the help of a fellow concerned woman (AINGEAL GREHAN), continues on her quest to bring peace to her neighborhood, eventually leading to meetings with high ranking officials on both sides of the volatile conflict.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
If you're going to make a small, independent and what some would consider to be an "art house" film, the odds aren't high that you'll be drawing hordes of moviegoers, as they generally have as much of an aversion to seeing such films as mainstream theaters do in booking them.

To compensate for that near Catch-22 dilemma, filmmakers often try to lure in viewers by casting big stars in such features (if they'll agree to do so and for only a fraction of what they normally make). They can also make their films as controversial as possible (hoping that they don't go too far and turn off or offend their potential audience). Then again, they can simply give their small film an attention grabbing or familiar title, realizing that some people are drawn best to what they're already accustomed to.

"Titanic Town," the first entry in this year's edition of the Shooting Gallery Film Series (playing in select cities across the country), seems to have opted for that latter choice. While it's hard to figure out who ultimately named the film, those who will be fooled by its title - namely gullible teens - may accuse it of the old bait and switch tactic.

While there's some validity to that accusation - after all, neither that ocean liner nor Leo, Kate or anyone else associated with the 1997 blockbuster are to be found anywhere remotely near this film - the picture is set in the town where the ill-fated ship was made and one character briefly comments on just that.

In addition, the social status division forever tied to the Titanic - namely that of the British riding in first class while the Irish who built it being stuck down in steerage - is symbolically represented by what occurs here in the latest film from director Roger Michell ("Notting Hill," "Persuasion").

That, of course, is the decades long struggle between the Irish and their IRA and the British and their military occupation of Ireland. Since drama and dramatic elements naturally flow out of conflict, the longstanding IRA/British military strife has been the underlying basis for many films ranging from "Michael Collins" to "The Boxer," to name just a few.

Despite the familiarity of the basic story, Michell, who works from screenwriter Anne Devlin's ("Vigo," 1992's "Wuthering Heights") adaptation of Mary Costello's reportedly autobiographical novel, manages to infuse the proceedings with enough dry humor, sympathetic characters and intriguing drama to make the film seem interesting and novel. He manages to avoid - at least for the most part - the "been there, seen that" problem that often plagues stories involving that conflict and/or ones featuring characters who withstand all sorts of mental, verbal and physical criticism and intimidation while standing up for what they believe in.

Since so much of the story hinges on the portrayal of real-life intermediary and central character Bernie McPhelimy, Michell's effort clearly benefits from the presence of and standout performance by Julie Walters ("Educating Rita," "Stepping Out") in that role. Playing the character with just the right combination of anger, humor, compassion and perseverance, Walters is not only believable as the steadfast mother, but she also manages to create a character who's appealing and elicits our concern.

Where else will you see a character one moment starring down the rifle of an IRA gunman and the next being more concerned about the dust under her daughter's bed rather than with the British raid occurring in her home? Much like in Michell's "Notting Hill," the main character here must deal with the ramifications of fame and/or notoriety, and while Bernie's no Julia Roberts, the effect is at least thematically quite similar.

Somewhat paralleling her story is Nuala O'Neill (who makes her feature film debut) who plays Bernie's daughter, Annie. Although her role isn't as fleshed out or as sympathetic as that of Walters', O'Neill similarly creates a credible character. Ciaran Hinds ("Oscar and Lucinda," "Persuasion") and Ciaran McMenamin ("The Trench," "Cluck") deliver decent supporting performances, but most of the rest of the performers and the characters they inhabit serve only as filler.

As surprising as it might sound, that's not entirely a horrible fact since the film revolves almost completely around the protagonist and her convictions and actions. Of course, the true-life element certainly gives the film a bit more magnitude, and the David and Goliath type story actually works rather well. Michell's smart in tactfully using the necessary violence and nicely symbolizes the visible presence of the military and other gunmen as a contrasting intrusion on family neighborhood life.

Thankfully, he doesn't abuse or glorify such violence since, after all, this is a story told on an intimate, human scale and the film consequently never gets to the point of being uncomfortable to watch as is the case with many of its cinematic siblings.

Despite a somewhat misleading title and the retreading of a basic story and theme that have been nearly done to death countless times before, this film manages to hold the viewer's interest throughout due to strong performances from its leads and a keen sense of proper and effective storytelling. While this film is likely to sink as fast at the box office as its real-life namesake did in the North Atlantic, it's certainly a film worth checking out before it does so. We give "Titanic Town" a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 22, 2000 / Posted September 1, 2000

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