15 November 2000 | the red duchess
Comic relief from so many earnest Northern Ireland films.
Films about the 'troubled' North of Ireland are generally handwringingly grim affairs, probably appropriate to a place of deep-seated sectarian violence, where every family was touched in some way by murder, torture, kidnapping, extortion, intimidation by the various godmocking groups of neonazis. It's just that the people of Northern Ireland became solely defined by a negative, destructive reality, and very few positive things - like humanity, humour, family, childhood etc. - were ever put forward in its place, or as an alternative.
This lovely film is so refreshing because it revels in these positive things. 'Majella' is set in (London)Derry in the late 1970s; the young boys watch 'Monkey', the young girls aspire to 'Charlie's Angels'. One of these girls, Majella McGinty, has a favourite game, wherein she is locked in a suitcase and hidden somewhere, the object being for her to guess where. One day she hides there after a fright, in her parents' bedroom. Her parents, spotting a rare moment of peace, decide to make love. The imaginative Majella misinterprets her father's moans of 'You're killing me' - a series of unlucky coincidences lead Majella to assume her mother has murdered her father.
'Majella' shares some themes with the Balkan short 'Two Little Girls and a War', in its contrasting childhood innocence with implied adult horrors. But this is so much more fun. There are bombs, but these are treated as an adventure game by the kids (rather like Bill in Boorman's 'Hope and Glory').
There are British soldiers, but their sheer incongruity makes their presence surreal rather than oppressive. The depiction of a child's world, a mentality that can transform or open up an adult, dead-end reality is very subtle, while there is still room for all the little cruelties and jealousies that make up childhood, as well as the popular culture that makes it bearable.
This is not to say this film makes the Troubles cuddly. I was reminded of a BBC documentary about Ireland last year, presented by professional conscience Fergal Keane. He began one unbearably moving episode with a photograph of a juvenile football team on the eve of the Troubles, full of hopes, ambitions, joys of youth, before going on to reveal the fates of these boys, some murdered, abducted, others members of the IRA or double agents.
Something of this terrible hindsight casts its shadow on this breezy film, and these children - when a bomb prevents their parents from even shopping, we fear the proximity to the domestic of this ghastly, imbecilic conflict. Majella's fantasies of death and murder are so plausible to her because they infect her culture. This is a rites-of-passage into an adult world where her father could one day end up murdered.