Some Mother's Son (Ireland, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In 1979, when Margaret Thatcher assumed the role of England's Prime Minister, one of her stated aims was to crush the IRA and its associated "terrorism." Her "Northern Ireland Solution", as it became known, included three principles: Isolation, Criminalization, and Demoralization. Those members of the IRA captured for terrorist acts were to be treated as criminals, not soldiers. Prisons were to be used to break morale, not create martyrs.

On March 1, 1981, IRA prisoner Bobby Sands began a hunger strike which would earn him world-wide notoriety. Sands laid out five demands that, if met by the British government, would end the strike. Chief among these was the requirement that imprisoned IRA members would be recognized as "prisoners of war" (not common criminals), and, as such, would be allowed to wear their own clothing (instead of prison uniforms). Thatcher's government refused to negotiate, even when, on April 9, Sands was elected as the Member of Parliament from Fermanagh and South Tyrone. 66 days after it began, Sands' protest ended with his death. Others followed his example, and, by the time the strike ended on October 3, ten of the more than 300 IRA prisoners in Long Kesh prison's H-Blocks had perished.

The story of Sands' hunger strike forms the background of Terry George's directorial debut, Some Mother's Son. However, while there is a great deal of information in the film about Sinn Fein, the IRA, and the political situation in Ireland during the early 1980s (some of which is fictionalized), this is principally a tale of sacrifice and family relationships. It's about a mother being forced to confront the very real fear that her son may die for convictions that she does not share, and that it could ultimately be her responsibility to choose life or death for him.

The character of Gerard Quigley (Aidan Gillen) does not, nor ever did, exist, but George, along with co-writer Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father), uses him as a focal point for Some Mother's Son's narrative. He is typical of young IRA members: firm in his beliefs, staunch in his hatred of the British, and willing to die for his convictions. He looks upon Bobby Sands (played by John Lynch) as a Messiah-like figure, and is willing to follow him to the grave.

The real star of the film, however, is Helen Mirren, who gives a stirring performance as Gerard's torn mother, Kathleen. A widowed schoolteacher trying to raise a family of three, Kathleen despises the violent tactics employed by the IRA, and is shocked to learn that her oldest son is a member of the organization. Some Mother's Son explores Kathleen's difficulties in coming to terms with Gerard's beliefs. And, although she refuses to be "a stooge for violence", Kathleen fights for her son with every ounce of strength, effectively helping the IRA. From her perspective, she walks a precarious moral tightrope. Once the hunger strikes begin, Kathleen recognizes that an agonizing dilemma awaits. If Gerard loses consciousness, it will be up to her (as his next-of-kin) to decide whether or not he is given food. If she agrees to have him fed intravenously, she violates his convictions. On the other hand, in the words of a British official, "Surely no mother would allow her son to die."

Mirren is given fine support by Fionnula Flanagan, who plays Annie Higgins, the mother of hunger striker Frank Higgins (David O'Hara). Unlike Kathleen, Annie is pro-IRA, but, despite their differing political views, the two become close compatriots through the shared bond of their sons' ordeals. Ciaran Hinds (last seen as the dashing Captain Wentworth in Persuasion) plays Sinn Fein spokesman Danny Boyle (presumably a fictional representation of Gerry Adams).

Production values in Some Mother's Son are top-notch. There is a real sense of time and place, from the close, claustrophobic insides of Long Kesh prison to the streets of nearby Belfast. Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson (Shine) manages the difficult task of capturing the film's personal moments as effectively as the more epic ones (such as the funeral procession for Bobby Sands, which drew 100,000 mourners). Bill Whelan's forceful, energetic score is one of the best of the year.

Make no mistake: while the core story of Some Mother's Son is universal in theme and deeply personal in scope, the narrative nevertheless shows evidence of a pro-Republican bias. Although the movie is arguably more balanced than Sheridan's powerful and riveting In the Name of the Father, the British still come off as faceless villains. Margaret Thatcher's mouthpiece is a caricature of vicious, heartless cliches. For those with an interest in the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland, Some Mother's Son makes an excellent companion piece to Neil Jordan's Michael Collins. But, regardless of your political leanings, Terry George's picture is well worth seeing because of its intelligence and emotional depth, not to mention Helen Mirren's Oscar-caliber performance.

Some Mother's Son (Ireland, 1996)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1996-12-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1