The Troubles, as the ongoing war against the British in Northern Ireland are called, are usually the stuff of high-minded drama. But in "Titanic Town," they are given a slightly different treatment that heightens the absurdity of war even as it acknowledges its deadly seriousness.
Julie Walters plays Bernie McPhelimy, a wife and mother of four who thinks she's escaped the worst of the battles when she and her family move to the West Belfast neighborhood of Andersonstown. But soon after they move in, the Troubles are literally on her doorstep: If she isn't being awakened in the middle of the night by an IRA soldier mucking up her front garden and shooting at British helicopters, then her house is being searched by British soldiers.
It's a reflection of Bernie's apolitical nature that she's more worried about dust under the beds during those searches than she is about British imperialism. But when her best friend is killed by a stray IRA bullet - a bullet that her neighbors immediately ascribe to British guns - Bernie decides to take action. She attempts to broker a detente with the same common sense and concern that she would bring to a school bake sale. When she says that she wants the "shooting to be re-timetabled," she speaks with the off-handed straightforwardness of a PTA mother organizing a car pool.
The adaptation of Mary Costello's fictionalized memoir, "Titanic Town" isn't just about Bernie's sometimes scatterbrained heroics ("I have them here somewhere," she mutters to the Secretary of State, searching her purse for a list of IRA demands), but is also the story of her daughter Annie (Nuala O'Neill), whose adolescent discovery of love and sex is eclipsed by her mother's newfound celebrity.
Reading "Vile Bodies," listening to Van Morrison, taking her first drink - Annie goes through all the commonplaces of a coming of age, against a backdrop of unspeakable violence and tension and the indignity of Bernie's late blooming.
Director Roger Michell ("Persuasion") does a good job of tempering this remarkable story's heightened drama with a steady-handed realism, lending "Titanic Town" just the right amount of detail to give it life, from Andersonstown's drab, rainy streets to Bernie's pink hair-curlers and oft-popped Valiums. (Kudos, too, for the vintage John Martyn on the soundtrack.)
Walters has shed the ingenue charm of "Educating Rita" to become an almost impossibly frumpy housewife, and Hinds, who made such a dangerously dashing Capt. Wentworth in Michell's "Persuasion," turns in a touching portrayal of a weak man who is befuddled and sometimes diminished by his wife's power.
"Titanic Town" doesn't make triumphant overstatements. Bernie never delivers the Jesus speech, and no character does anything more noble than lending someone a pencil. That's just what makes "Titanic Town" so understatedly good.
Even in its final shot, this is a movie that understands that if life goes on, so does death.
Starring Julie Walters, Ciaran Hinds, Nuala O'Neill
Directed by Roger Michell
UnratedRunning time 102 minutes
Released by The Shooting Gallery
Sun score: ***