The first words spoken in Terry George's potent IRA drama "Some Mother's Son" are by then-newly elected British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who, apparently stating her position on the "Irish problem," quotes St. Francis of Assisi: "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope."
Action, of course, speaks louder than words, and in Thatcher's first year, the British government set out to destroy popular support for the IRA in Northern Ireland with a get-tough policy that would lead to the deaths of 10 IRA prisoners in the 1981 Irish hunger strikes and focus worldwide attention on the cruelty of the English hand in Ulster.
"Some Mother's Son," co-written by Jim Sheridan and George, who'd also teamed up on the script for "In the Name of the Father," dramatizes the strike from the perspective of two husbandless women whose sons are united in the fast.
Kathleen Quigley (Helen Mirren) is a teacher at a small Catholic school who is apolitical, nonviolent and oblivious to her son's passions. Annie Higgins (Fionnula Flanagan), a crusty farmer, is not only aware of her son's IRA activities, but also, with the fresh memory of another son killed by the British, encourages and supports them.
When Gerard Quigley (Aidan Gillen) and Frank Higgins (David O'Hara) are arrested and convicted for their roles in an IRA rocket assault on British troops, Kathleen and Annie form an uneasy alliance that--as their sons' fates are joined with those in the prison hunger strike--becomes something that transcends politics and taps into the nature of maternal love itself.
George, in his directing debut, does a remarkable job of balancing the parallel stories--the relationship between the moms, and life for their sons inside notorious H-Block. Kathleen, Annie and their sons are fictional characters, as are most of the priests, British officials and IRA leaders we meet. But the political details are historical fact.
"Some Mother's Son" follows Thatcher's opening comments with the announcement by a chillingly eager young government official (Tom Hollander) of a plan to "isolate," "criminalize" and "demoralize" IRA members. They'll isolate them by cutting off border routes and creating surveillance walls around suspected IRA pockets. They'll criminalize them by refusing to acknowledge the IRA as a political entity. And they'll demoralize them by recanting an earlier agreement to treat imprisoned members as POWs.
It was this last measure that produced the hunger strike. Led by Bobby Sands (John Lynch), who would be martyred as the first to die, IRA prisoners issued a list of five demands, which merely amounted to a restoration of their previous political prisoner status. But the Thatcher government held firm, and the only way for the life of a fasting inmate to be spared was for his family to order that he be force-fed.
That's the dilemma ultimately facing Kathleen and Annie, as their sons weaken and lose their ability to speak for themselves. Do you honor your child's principles or your own instincts? This is powerful stuff.
Mirren and Flanagan give wonderful performances, playing women forcing themselves to find common ground, and the filmmakers mitigate their clear anti-British sentiments with the condemnation of violence on both sides.
Many political scientists hold the view that the Irish problem may have no solution, but when Kathleen Quigley, at the peak of her outrage, reaches down to stop her younger son from throwing a rock, it's a quietly profound gesture of reason.
Whoever is hit by the rock--or the bullet--is some mother's son, and the morale here is that until everyone can empathize with the surviving victims of violence, peace can't even exist as a goal.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and some political violence and suffering. Times guidelines: Subject matter and prison sequences may be too intense for preteens.
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'Some Mother's Son'
Helen Mirren: Kathleen Quigley
Fionnula Flanagan: Annie Higgins
Aidan Gillen: Gerard Quigley
David O'Hara: Frank Higgins
John Lynch: Bobby Sands
Tom Hollander: Farnsworth
A Hell's Kitchen Production, released by Sony Pictures for Castle Rock Entertainment. Director Terry George. Producers Jim Sheridan, Arthur Lappin, Edward Burke. Script George, Sheridan. Camera Geoffrey Simpson. Editor Craig McKay. Music Bill Whelan. Production design David Wilson. Art direction Conor Devlin. Set decoration Carolyn Scott. Costumes Joan Bergin. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
* Exclusively at Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion Cinemas, Westside Pavilion, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 475-0202; Edwards South Coast Village, 1561 Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 540-0594; and AMC Promenade 16, Promenade Mall, Woodland Hills, (818) 883-2AMC.