Bogwoman (1997)

D: Tom Collins
S: Rachael Dowling, Peter Mullan

The evolution of 'the troubles' in Northern Ireland seen through the eyes of a single mother from Donegal who moves to Derry City in 1958. Rachael Dowling plays the woman in question, who comes to marry shiftless gambler Peter Mullan (My Name is Joe) and finds a network of women with whom strong personal and community bonds develop living in the Catholic/Nationalist Bogside area of the divided city. As political events proceed at pace around her, Dowling faces various personal pressures in the form of her rapidly expanding family, her husband's erratic success as a bookmaker and eventually his fatal illness which leaves her to struggle on alone just as Northern Ireland seems poised on the edge of the abyss.

Documentarist Tom Collins has not quite succeeded with this move to fiction (following Alan Gilsenan's equally ill-judged All Souls' Day). The fragmented and often dramatically unconvincing script works only as trope, a sort of symbolic backdrop to the occasional flashes of documentary footage (with a contemporary voice over provided by RTE newsreader Bryan Dobson) which detail the development of political unrest. The intention seems to be that the film would deal with a family on the fringes rather than directly involved (only to prove, of course, that everyone is involved whether they know it or not). This is interesting in theory, but the writing is not up to the task of blending the personal and the political, and its rapid and uneven temporal shifts move between days, weeks, months and years in fits and starts which leave the viewer confused, especially when the make-up is not especially convincing and actors have adult children while looking the same as they did ten minutes earlier as a younger person.

The story proceeds clumsily from anecdotal incident to anecdotal incident; revealing little, telling much. Characters make lengthy speeches which describe their state of mind and lay out their particular difficulties of the moment for the audience to contemplate, leaving little to the imagination and leaving the actors with little to do other than read their lines. The film then cuts away to archive footage portraying significant moments from the period between 1958 and 1968, climaxing with the arrival of British troops in the city. The drama abruptly comes to an end with the rather simplistic and certainly unconvincing 'awakening' of its leading lady, who joins her militant neighbour on the front line making petrol bombs, and as the credits roll you can't help but wonder if "Bogwoman II" will then continue the logical trajectory of the drama and chart her eventual disillusionment with Nationalism. Alas, this will not happen, and the final impression the film leaves is of a rather silly propaganda exercise which does not credit its audience with much intelligence.

Completed in 1997, the film waited until 1999 for a theatrical release in Ireland. It is certainly a disappointment after considerable hype, and after the not uninteresting documentary work of this filmmaker. How it will fare abroad, if at all, remains to be seen.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.