Love and Martyrdom

Some Mother's Son
Directed by Terry George. Written by Terry George and Jim Sheridan. Starring Helen Mirren and Fionnula Flanagan. Opens Thursday, Dec. 26, at the Embarcadero Center.

The Whole Wide World
Directed by Dan Ireland. Written by Michael Scott Myers, from the book One Who Walked Alone, by Novalyne Price Ellis. Starring Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger. Opens Friday, Dec. 27, at the Bridge in S.F. and the Shattuck in Berkeley.

Terry George, the director and co-writer (with Jim Sheridan) of Some Mother's Son, has more complicated feelings about Northern Ireland than he can express coherently. They shoot out in piercing shards of action and potent gutter or pulpit rhetoric. Some Mother's Son is about the fight to save the lives of the rebel group that became known as the Ten Men Dead. It may appear to be a forthright pro-Irish saga of unjust incarceration. But it's only superficially simple. You have to keep your wits about you to step-dance through its emotional terrain -- there's a welter of conflicting attitudes in the characters as well as in the filmmakers. The movie expresses what it's like to endure unending political catastrophes. The people in this film live on survival reflexes; they hope for emergency stopgaps that can't substitute for lasting resolution. As political art, Some Mother's Son is wanting. As a document of Irish confusion, it's indelible.

At the turning point of this fact-inspired chronicle of "the troubles," a college-age boy named Gerard Quigley (Aidan Gillen), having been thrown into Ulster's Maze Prison for IRA activity, joins the hunger strike that resulted in the death of Bobby Sands and nine other young rebels from May to August in 1981. (In the early '70s, George spent three years in the same prison on an arms charge.) The core of the story is the relationship between Gerard's mother, Kathleen (Helen Mirren), an anti-IRA schoolteacher, and Annie Higgins (Fionnula Flanagan), a working-class mother whose revulsion for the British is near total. As Annie's son, Frank (David O'Hara), and Kathleen's Gerard teeter toward martyrdom, the two women petition and beg the British government to respond to the prisoners' demands and end the strike.

The mothers' affectionate alliance is a marvelous example of the surprising valences in human chemistry. Kathleen is a smart, firm woman in a "soft," equivocating position. Right up to his arrest, Gerard has been able to hide his politics from her. She's horrified at the coldbloodedness of his self-styled soldiering, and mortified when he plants a farewell kiss on her mouth to pass a written message to the Sinn Fein. Annie, on the other hand, wholly supports Frank's actions. She's already lost one son to the struggle, and she's certain that blasting the British off her island will better her lot. Kathleen, educated and worldly, is better able to articulate their sons' plight to British officials, but Annie has the scrappiness and sorority needed for a war of emotional attrition. As the turbulence behind bars runs its terrifying course, the audience, like Kathleen, gets caught up in the fervor of Annie's firebrand solidarity.

George's stirring depiction of the prisoners' revolt and its riotous consequences obscures the film's key idea: that destruction or self-destruction inevitably cripples a movement. The IRA inmates protest because they want to be recognized as prisoners of war, not criminals. The most critical of their five demands is the most purely symbolic: the right to wear their own clothes. George means to question whether acquiring such a right -- and, at one point, the ability to call it a right and not a privilege -- is worth risking lives. But his re-enactments of the turmoil in Maze Prison and the street processions that follow are so mind-grabbing and electric that a rift develops between what the movie states explicitly and what it dramatizes.

George has said that the film is about the anguish of people squeezed between two extremes: the institutional violence of the British, and the mystical revolutionary violence of the IRA. It plays out, though, as a battle between a liberal, Kathleen, and the radicals and reactionaries around her. In art, as in politics, the liberal perspective is difficult to make dynamic and appealing. Seeing Kathleen look askance at the rebels' courtroom grandstanding isn't as gut-warming as watching Annie mouth off to every authority figure in sight, whether the security forces or a nun. Early on, there's a barbed critique of Irish manly charm in Gerard's deception and manipulation of his mother. But George never rises to the full-blooded analysis of Irish machismo that informed In the Name of the Father (which he and Sheridan also co-wrote, with Sheridan directing).

Still, Some Mother's Son has impact even when it zigs and zags. George gets at something mysterious -- the percussive, fatalistic nationalism shared by almost every major character except Kathleen. When George moves from the mothers crooning American pop standards to the prisoners joining arms and voices and drumming on walls, the film has an atavistic charge that's rooted in real events. The prison guards won't pick up the inmates' slops unless they take off their makeshift blanket robes and put on their convict uniforms; the men smear their feces on the walls and keep up their regimen of exercise and Gaelic pride. This isn't hyperbole, it's history. In The Troubles (Roberts Rinehart, 1996), Tim Pat Coogan writes, "Throughout the Dirty Protest, the prisoners continued to hold Irish classes. They tapped out a word on the central-heating pipes and then inscribed it onto the walls of their cells in their own excrement, sometimes using the crucifixes on their rosary beads as stylos." George's audience viscerally experiences the IRA men using patriotic and religious enthusiasm to jack themselves up into a transcendental state. When Gerard first lands in Bobby Sands' prison cell and tells him he looks like Jesus, it sounds like an air-clearing quip; when Sands lies dying of starvation, after just being elected to Parliament, it's no joke.

Flanagan is fabulous as the proletariat mom. She alchemizes small and big bits of business into a performance bubbling with fresh folk legendry and humor: At her peak she refuses to sit beneath a portrait of the queen hanging on a pub's wall. Ruddy, freckled, and on the strong side of stout, she's like a gorgeous, weathered swath of Irish landscape. And Mirren, though she starts as tentatively as the character herself, gains in authority as the film develops. When Gerard lies prone and exhausted in his hospital bed, Kathleen won't crack and condone his politics to give him comfort. Nor will she relinquish her parental rights: Her intransigence saves him. She and Flanagan have a heart-rending breakthrough when Kathleen emerges shaken and crying from the prison after Gerard takes up the hunger strike. With a flash flood of empathy washing away all past resentments, Annie urges Kathleen to get a grip in front of the prison personnel -- before she collapses into tears herself. The movie is about the need to preserve life without betraying comrades. Mirren is the one who finally clarifies that theme while George shows the men nattering over bargaining points. She brings the film the gift of a fine-grained consciousness.

Robert E. Howard, the subject of Dan Ireland's wonderful debut film, The Whole Wide World, created the sword-and-sorcery genre with his Conan stories. Howard had a grand yet coarse-grained consciousness. His Conan adventures, set in a fictitious primordial age full of demons and killers, boasted swift, cartoon-flavored action ("He moved with the supple ease of a great tiger, his steely muscles rippling under his brown skin"). Conan himself pushed the appeal of the strong-man superhero to its outer limits as a "black-haired, sullen-eyed thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth" -- in short, the most honorable murderer around, able to sunder any encroachments on his freedom with a single thwack of his blade. Some followers of Howard thought that Conan evolved out of the young West Texas writer's adolescent insecurities; L. Sprague de Camp called the author "maladjusted to the point of psychosis."

Vincent D'Onofrio (the obese basket case in Full Metal Jacket) portrays Howard freakily well in The Whole Wide World. His characterization is so multifaceted that Howard's "maladjustment" pales before his talent and potential, and the depth of his wasted heart. The movie tells the true story of Howard's abortive love affair with schoolteacher Novalyne Price, who recounted this rich and peculiar mid-1930s tale in her memoir, One Who Walked Alone (published by Donald M. Grant in 1985 under her married name, Novalyne Price Ellis). Using coiled, theatrical gestures and a bellowing delivery, D'Onofrio makes bombast seem like second nature to this bouncing boy-man; his first nature remains mysterious. A mama's boy with a physically sick mama and a distant doctor father, he carries his big body carelessly, as if he'd bulked out not only to stand up to bullies but also to forge an image fit for his prehistoric imaginings. The tragicomic tension Howard generates circles out and embraces not just the whole wide world, but the whole damn universe.

Price likes Howard because he's literary -- a rarity in a tiny town like Cross Plains -- and she's an aspiring writer herself. When they joy ride together through the wide-open spaces, his bounding energy promises romance and deliverance from the small-town mundane -- the slashing catharses that his heroes carve out with scimitars. But it would take more than a scimitar for him to cut his mama's apron strings; by the end of the film, they form a psychic noose. Ann Wedgeworth is amazing as Mrs. Howard; in a few brief scenes she communicates an Olympian, upsettingly sensual blend of graspingness, neediness, and territoriality. What's saddest about the movie is that if his mother weren't in the way, Price would be Howard's perfect companion. Without playing the meek, admiring maid, she's ready to take in everything Howard can teach her about writing as a craft and a calling. She's absorbent yet strong -- a fibrous sponge ready to wipe her tarnished Lochinvar clean and introduce him to society.

Renee Zellweger has a tough, non-insistent purity in this part that cuts deeper than the charming, goofy goodliness she displays in Jerry Maguire. She's able to respond fluidly to D'Onofrio's liquid shifts from belligerence to bathos because she has a terrific fix on her own character. Zellweger doesn't try to inflate Price beyond what she is: a smart, independent woman who tests her talent, open-mindedness, and unconventionality when she befriends a gifted, complicated man who's hanging over an emotional abyss. Zellweger's features are elastic in the best sense. They elongate, contract, or scrunch up -- in fear, surprise, or disgust -- then snap back into place. And when she smiles, she glows like the Texas sunsets this pair gets all moony about. Zellweger is one of the few actresses you could imagine as a Dickens heroine, except her voice rests naturally between a drawl and a twang, and her unfettered emotionality and gaiety are quintessentially American.

The film is virtually a two-character piece, but it moves on billowing waves of feeling. As Howard waves his arms over the primordial Texas landscape and intones his vision of lost frontiers, he sweeps the audience up in his dark exuberance. Howard and Price reflect Old West archetypes of the prairie schoolmarm and the untamed loner -- the Angel and the Badman -- but in a fun-house-mirror way. Howard sees himself as a warrior reincarnate and a celebrant of a dying heritage. Price alternates between seeing him as a man born in the wrong time and a sad, hard case: a misfit who dreams of being a swashbuckler roaming free when he's actually shackled to his mother. And Price -- an individualist yearning for social acceptance and conventional happiness -- is herself a divided soul. The Whole Wide World is like a cross between The Last Picture Show, with its view of men and women seeking release in a parched environment, and Lionel Trilling's "Of This Time, Of That Place." Trilling, with his high literary standards, might not have recognized the tragedy of a pulp writer like Robert E. Howard. Ireland, like Price Ellis, does.

Graham Greene once wrote, "The literature of escape is literature just because it is a real escape; it contains a recognition of life as much as the action of a deserter contains the recognition of an enemy." Ireland's extraordinarily balanced sympathies for escapism and life give The Whole Wide World a lift beyond mere quirkiness or pathos. The spacious look of the picture, with its key figures framed on riverbanks or clifftops, frees it from claustrophobia. Ireland uses a terrifically effective counterpoint of sound and image to bring Howard's real and escapist landscapes together. Howard loves to holler out his stories as he types them, and from the moment Price overhears him doing it, the soundtrack becomes the repository of his fantasies. When she opens an issue of Weird Tales with one of his cover stories, hysteria-inducing string music and the clank of swords flood her room until she slams it shut; when Howard is shadowboxing through the streets of Cross Plains while thinking out a boxing tale, we're aurally encased in the tumult of the ring, fight bell and all, until Price interrupts him and nearly gets slugged.

Ireland and his screenwriter, Michael Scott Myers, have done a remarkable job of isolating the essence of Howard and Price's relationship, retaining whole scenes and chunks of dialogue from Price Ellis' memoir. They've ignored her account of Howard's more outre beliefs in reincarnation and racial separatism (even in the introduction to the book, written in 1981, his friend, Clyde Tevis Smith, writes approvingly of Howard's realization that "his People could not survive without unity"). They've cut out his mother's hatred for Indians (an excuse she uses in the book to disapprove of Price, whose father looked like a Native American), and they've deleted an episode when Price's zealous teaching combined with her intense feelings for Howard to send her into the hospital in a starved, exhausted state. But they've keyed in on the material's most resonating elements -- the battles between magic and realism that every impressionable moviegoer can relate to, and the bartering between idealism and pragmatism that every man or woman negotiates when growing up. As Howard might have written, The Whole Wide World is small of cast but huge of spirit.

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