[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
“We thought we’d left the Troubles behind,” voices 16-year-old Annie McPhelimy (Nuala O’Neill) in the opening moments. “They were just starting.” Her family moves into a modest brick home in Andersonstown, a Catholic district of West Belfast in 1972, to escape the violence of their previous neighborhood, but it isn’t long before an IRA guerrilla is poised on their porch firing into the streets. Bernie (Julie Walters) charges out like a mother bear, chasing him off more out of foolhardy temperament than actual courage.
Like their neighbors, they are Catholics, but when Bernie’s best friend is accidentally killed by the IRA in a shopping center skirmish, she turns her frustrations into activism and becomes the accidental spokesman for the silent citizens scared to speak up for fear of retribution. As she gets caught up in the slippery realities of politics and media reportage, her outspoken attacks on the violence are seen in her community as a betrayal of the IRA: her family is shunned, her kids bullied in school, her house attacked by her very neighbors.
Roger Michell (Persuasion, Notting Hill), working from an adaptation of Anne Devlin’s autobiographical novel, has a gift for creating complex, quietly human characters in all their contradictory dimensions. Julie Walters is guileless and indignant as a working-class mom whose stubbornness drives her campaign in defiance of her community’s condemnation. Michell is careful to keep her from becoming a saint, and he deftly handles the irony as her cause snowballs beyond her control and her intentions: the British government uses her efforts to discredit the IRA.
Husband Aidan (Ciarán Hinds) falls glum as the campaign gains momentum, fearful of the repercussions, yet he’s the first one on the street giving the “enemy” aid and comfort when a British soldier is shot outside their house.
The story is told from daughter Annie’s perspective, which helps ground the story in the realities of day-to-day life, but her first-love subplot feels more like a dramatic device than an organic part of the film.
Michell captures the awkwardness of real-world behavior with gentle, unforced humor, puncturing pretensions while giving a documentary-like immediacy to the matter-of-fact portrait of urban guerrilla warfare in all its everyday terror. It’s a startling window into a world where armed street skirmishes and sudden death are so common that a child can ask her older sister, in complete innocence: “If you ever get shot, can I have your dolls?”