Reminds me of a Ciardi poem, "My tribe is honing knives to use against your tribe." Lord, what hatred. The Catholics and the Proddies hate one another and everybody hates Bernie, the frustrated woman who forms a peace group to mediate between the IRA and the Brits in West Belfast. I don't know how, exactly, but I suppose from documentaries and "Odd Man Out," I'd gotten a picture of strife-torn Belfast as a heap of burned out urban wrack. Andersontown, where Bernie lives with her husband and three or four kids, looks more like one of those unpretentious working-class brick housing developments with wide streets and neat green lawns that one might see on the outskirts of Allentown, Pennsylvania. But there is violence in these clean streets too. A shot rings out, a soldier falls, and residents run from their houses to help the young man who lies on the wet sunlit street with an IRA bullet in his side. An ambulance speeds him away and a few minutes later there is a raid by the army. Several of the local old men are "lifted" and taken away in APCs. Bernie is incensed. The streets are not even safe for children during the daytime! And when her former bridesmaid, Mary McCoy, has her brains accidentally blown out by another IRA bullet, she recruits a friend and they begin to lobby, first in churches and town meetings, then on TV, for a cease fire. What kind of cease fire? Mutual fund managers have two styles of investing in stocks. One is "top down," in which the manager takes into account macroeconomic variables -- the interest rate, the direction the market is likely to go, the likelihood of improvement in different sectors -- and making bets along those lines. The other style is called "bottom up" investing. The hell with the overall market themes and the Bollinger bands. The "bottom up" investor looks for individual companies with favorable cash flows, good management, and quality products, regardless of the overall condition of the market. As a peace lobbyist, Bernie is a bottom up investor. She wants a cease fire for the sake of the kids -- period. She couldn't care less about larger issues like home rule. The well-meaning Protestant women running the town hall meeting are top-downers and begin by saying things like, "We must all find a common ground between us," and, "We must get to know one another so we can work more effectively together." Bernie doesn't want to find common ground. She is the complete pragmatist. She wants the shooting to stop. Her efforts earn her the enmity of the IRA, who consider her a traitor for "letting down the Catholics in front of everybody." And then the hatred of her neighbors, who throw bricks through her window, bop her retarded son on the head, and perforate her husband's ulcer. Bernie is angry and determined, but she's scared too. Anybody would be scared. At one point a man pins her against a brick wall at night, puts a pistol to her head and drops the hammer on an empty chamber while warning her to back off. Everybody wants peace on his or her own terms. But Bernie just wants peace. After meeting with the IRA in a scene that is almost comic, she meets with the high-ranking Brits, and there is an agreement that everyone will agree to a cease fire. The movie ends on an ambiguous note.
The last half of the movie loses its direction. Let me see. Bernie's schoolgirl daughter falls in love with a medical student. Somehow the student is lifted by the Brits because of Bernie's activities. Bernie's daughter blames Bernie for everything and tries to take an overdose of Valium. The two of them fight. They come together weeping, over the hospitalized retarded son who's gotten beaned. It doesn't have enough to do with the central issue, and brushes uneasily against soap opera.
Overall, though, it's quite well done. Julie Walters ("Educating Rita") looks as stalwart as she acts, and does a good job conveying her panic while waiting to be interrogated by the IRA leaders. She and her colleague keep breathlessly repeating Hail Marys. The IRA men turn out to be just ordinary guys from the neighborhood, one of them a former partner of Bernie's in an Irish dancing contest. Walters' is the only familiar face. None of the faces is glamorized in any way. Bernie's daughter is by no means attractive, but she has a cherubic face and a truly sweet dimpled smile. A fat neighbor with her hair in curlers, a vociferous IRA supporter, shouts obscenities at anyone not wholly behind her, playing it mostly for laughs.
When Bernie's family, having been kicked out, are trying to load their gear onto the truck, Fat IRA Lady's young son says, well, maybe he ought to go over and help them with the furniture. "What?" she screams at him. "You dumb f****** moron b****** -- and get KNEEcapped?" She whacks him across the head and shoos him into the house and, with a glance over her shoulder, adds, "Wait till after dark."
It would be interesting to know where these tribal impulses stem from. We are confronted, after all, with similar situations all over the world -- not just Northern Ireland, but Palestine, Iraq, and the cities of the United States. Why are we honing those knives? And why do so many of the rest of us hate people like Bernie? This movie illustrates the passions but doesn't suggest any answers, nor even suggest that there are any answers. And, of course, if there aren't, and there may not in fact be, then any exploration of human nature is going to give us a glimpse into the heart of a darkness that no one wants acknowledged. The argument takes this form. "I do what I do because I am forced to by circumstances beyond my control. My enemy does what he does because that's his nature." It's psychological manifestation is called "the fundamental error of attribution." Big concepts, tricky codes, but real enough that they may lead some day to our dissolution as a species unless we come to grips with them.