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Troubled Times

Some Mother's Son
Denis Mortell

Matriarchal Society: Helen Mirren (left) and Fionnula Flanagan protest the treatment of their offspring in "Some Mother's Son."

The horror of war is brought home in the raw maternal anguish of 'Some Mother's Son'

By Richard von Busack

THE TITLE of Some Mother's Son suggests a women's picture, and it is one--complete with scenes of newly liberated older women driving on the beach (as in both The Evening Star and Marvin's Room). But Some Mother's Son is based on something more intriguing than the question of how a really self-absorbed person handles encroaching age. This Irish import is rooted in an intriguing problem: Where was Bobby Sands' mother when he decided to go on his fatal hunger strike?

In 1981, Irish men convicted of crimes for the IRA demanded rights as political prisoners. The prisoners protested cell lock downs by smearing their dung on the walls and by refusing to bathe, cut their hair or shave. Going "on the blanket" they called it, because the prisoners wore their prison blankets instead of clothes; when the British government didn't yield, the protest became a hunger strike, and 10 men died.

On this side of the Atlantic, far away from the partisan passions, it all sounds like the mortification of martyrs. But Sands (John Lynch, who will do until Daniel Day-Lewis decides to come back to his century) is a secondary character here, which is an excellent way to treat the story of a martyr.

Director Terry George admires Sands' sincerity while deploring his fate. The movie isn't a dirge. George cross-cuts a fast, complicated Irish folk dance with images of an IRA soldier fleeing the British Army through the woods--as if evading the British were a time-honored folk ritual. This tactic may be looking at the Troubles too lightly, but then, it was the poet Yeats who called "The Patriot Game" a game.

At the beginning, the apolitical Mrs. Quigley (co-producer Helen Mirren) is a contented single mother. Her son, Gerard (Aidan Gillen), borrows the car one morning; she has no idea that he plans to use the car to ferry an IRA bazooka carrier to an attack. When his mother sees Gerard again, he has a saint's mad light in his eyes.

Visiting her son in prison, Mrs. Quigley meets Mrs. Higgins (Fionnula Flanagan), whose own son is locked up as well; she's a more countrified and uneducated woman, and much angrier about the British presence. The friendship between the two women crosses both the gulf of class and their different levels of willingness to sacrifice all for the cause.

Flanagan mirrors her great performance in James Joyce's Women in the gravity and toughness she shows here as Mrs. Higgins. She evokes a Spartan mother, one who could tell her son to come back from the wars with his shield or on it. In contrast to this monumental, almost forbidding woman, the haplessly apolitical Mrs. Quigley is our window into the Irish Troubles.

George's deeply intelligent, deft treatment of a raw subject brings home the horror of a war without flattening us with that horror--showing us how bad things were, not in hand wringing or violence, but in the way that even the kiss Gerard gives his mother turns out to have a political purpose. Some Mother's Son is a drama about middle-aged women that has as much brains as "women of a certain age" themselves--an audience usually more ill-served by the movies than even children are.

Some Mother's Son (R; 111 min.), directed by Terry George, written by Jim Sheriden and George, photographed by Geoffrey Simpson and starring Helen Mirren.

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From the January 30-February 5, 1997 issue of Metro

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