A Love Divided (1999)

D: Sydney McCartney
S: Liam Cunningham, Orla Brady

Though the events portrayed in A Love Divided actually occurred, the film is often a thinly veiled allegory for recent Irish history which manages to incorporate an unusual degree of subtlety in its depiction of the backstage wrangling and dealmaking which goes to make up much of contemporary Irish politics. Mid way through the film beleaguered Irish Catholic father Liam Cunningham meets with his Protestant wife's female lawyer at a garden restaurant in Belfast. His wife (Orla Brady) has fled Wexford with their two young daughters after their local priest (Tony Doyle) has insisted they attend Catholic school regardless of her wishes. Amid mounting chaos in the town as Catholics boycott Protestants and events gradually become more violent, Cunningham has gone to attempt reconciliation, only to meet demands for 'clarification' and 'terms' from his wife's lawyer. The scene has chilling echoes of the situation in 1990s Northern Ireland where people on either side both desire peace, but whose definition of a satisfactory resolution of the conflict differs.

Unfortunately, A Love Divided is also a love story, and it is at its least convincing in its portrayal of the real life couple Sean and Shelia Cloney. Their story is so well known and the wounds caused by the events which transpired in 1957 still run so deep that it is difficult for scriptwriter Stuart Hepburn to find a way through the political and thematic strands to the heart of a genuine and believable human relationship. Both Cunningham and Brady perform well, and their attempt to generate romantic chemistry is forced with several all-too-idyllic establishing scenes followed by too many all-too-convenient confrontations. It attempts to set up a contrast between the private and the public and argue that, left to their own devices and not forced to take religious or political positions on anything, the world inside the Cloney's rather overtly symbolic farm gate would have been wonderful beyond all reckoning. They kiss and frolic and play in the green fields to their hearts content until the snake of sectarianism gets in, whereupon they instantly transform into the dysfunctional patriarchy vs. feminism archetype of the 1990s.

Luckily though, the film is canny enough to make sure that the world of this couple is anything but enclosed. Their garden of eden is firmly located within a living community where long-established relationships and traditions are first established, then shattered by the boiling over of hostilities. A strong cast of supporting character actors contribute to the fabric of life in the town, and there is a genuine feeling of tragedy when the boycott begins to destroy people who seem authentic and human. The film is also very good in its depiction of the behind the scenes manoeuvring by religious figures on either side of the border (with Ian McIlhenny making a strong impression as a stern Belfast parson) to manipulate and/or respond to the situation as suits their own ends. Though the Catholics are very much the aggressors here (as they were in the case itself), the film is careful to suggest that the civil and religious authorities on both sides were both very much aware of what was going on, and used it as 'a test case' to see just what would happen. Long suppressed sectarian hatreds come to the surface despite the veneer of calm and co-operation; the 'us' and 'them' rhetoric is always there, and when the trouble comes, it symbolises the larger conflict in a way that is not just thematic contrivance on the part of the film's makers.

It is a curious mixture though. There are many powerful and dramatic moments, but there are some overwrought and obvious ones too. The final confrontation between Cunningham and Doyle in the town hall feels like something out of a Frank Capra movie, and Cunningham's hat seems a shade too Hollywood Western for its own good. It often runs the risk of sacrificing its dignity to the demands of a satisfied punter, and it is ultimately a personal decision which side of the sentiment fence you feel it comes down on. There are indications that the film is trying to 'universalise' the situation with scenes in its latter stages which reunite the lovers and bring them face to face with their accusers and with its continuing emphasis on the romantic tragedy. It doesn't descend to the demagoguery of Waking Ned, but it comes uncomfortably close to naivete too often to completely ignore.

On the balance, A Love Divided is a worthwhile film though, and certainly stands above recent efforts like Waking Ned and This is My Father as a portrayal of Ireland. There is a certain frustration in seeing films dealing with sectarianism and conflict in Ireland which set the story in the past and/or deflect attention away from a representation of politics onto a love story, and it makes you wish for something more direct and contemporary, but It is far from the worst example of its kind. Buoyed by strong performances, skilful direction and several standout scenes, it is well worth seeing, though it will probably prove of most interest to those with a memory of the event or an awareness of the history it portrays and the issues it raises in the larger context as a representation. This is not a documentary, and people should be careful about what conclusions they draw from it.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.