Maeve (1981)

D: John Davies, Pat Murphy
S: Mary Jackson, Brid Brennan

Political drama set in Northern Ireland following the reflections and memories of the title character (Mary Jackson), a young woman from a Catholic background returned from London one dark and troubled night only to find very little she wants to call home. Her sister (Brid Brennan) seems to be deriving amusement from teasing British soldiers and her mother (Trudy Kelly) and father (Mark Mulholland) seem more involved with stories of the past than an awareness of the present. The streets of Belfast seem peculiar and alien to her, and her wanderings bring scattered reminiscences of a world which was barely more hospitable. As she arrives to her home street, British troops are cordoning off the area while a bomb is disarmed and when her sister is later escorted to their door by suspicious army personnel, they gruffly inspect her documents before wishing her the best during her 'holiday'.

It is not so much the politics of Northern Ireland which drive this film in spite of its setting. A more powerful force dominates the destiny of its central character, namely her struggle for self-determination in a sexually and politically overdetermined society. The film is steeped in feminist rhetoric, and articulates popular feminist concerns with female identity, the body, and the relationship between feminism and nationalism which dogged women of a particular generation and social background in Northern Ireland during this period. Polemical to a fault, filled with dialogue mouthed by characters who seem to have little purpose other than to make lengthy speeches, the film has been made in the tradition of the European Art House. As such it is a typically peculiar mix of realism and unreality, politics and fantasy. Contemporary viewers are as likely to be gripped with helpless laughter as characters stand around speaking dialogue which reads like a textbook as they are to be gripped with the sense of tension which permeates the film's visual evocation of the society which surrounds and oppresses those characters.

There is no story to speak of, although the film is packed with stories and story telling. Characters constantly reflect, remember, or simply spin yarns. The past is a living legacy which, we are told, prevents people from moving forward with their lives and dealing with more important things. The film is essentially a collection of loosely interlinked scenes which refuse conventional narrative in favour of deliberate and articulated disconnection, reinforcing its central character's relationship with the world around her. Though the legacy of the past weighs heavily on Northern Ireland and on most of the other characters in the film, Maeve is trying to fight it. Again matching form to content, directors Pat Murphy and John Davies refuse to clearly distinguish between past and present, leaping abruptly from one to the other without the comfort of visual cues or establishing shots to make things easy. Making it easy is not the point. The film is eager to challenge and engage in discourse, though it must be said that the conversation between filmmaker and audience is pretty one-sided.

The film lays down its keynote gauntlet mostly during a series of exchanges between Maeve and her would-be boyfriend (John Keegan), the son of a staunch Republican who seems on the brink of breaking out at one point but never does. There are at least two scenes between these characters which play more like a rhetorical conundrum played out for philosophy students gathered around the ancient seer than elements of drama. Perhaps this refusal of conventional connection is partly the point, but the result for an audience no longer predisposed to its political content, the dialogue sounds like so much meaningless ranting. A similarly polemically charged scene takes place between Jackson and Brennan while both are naked, again something which at the time and in the place it was made represented the height of daring and challenge, but which now seems like a precious artifact of a dead sensibility. Visual allusions to Bergman likewise fall flat.

Maeve is a well made film given the circumstances of its production. A low budget art film from a country without a film industry, it is strikingly photographed and solidly acted by its lead, who succeeds in holding its centre in spite of the deliberate pace. Viewed in the context of its time, the film is a worthy and important addition to the canon of new Irish cinema. Its views on feminism and Northern Irish society are well taken, and its thematic and cinematic daring were notable in their day. The film does successfully articulate its point of view cinematically, and its mirrors of form and content in structure and editing all point to a carefully rendered work of film art. It represents the tentative first steps into feature film making for a writer/director who would occupy a significant place among Irish film artists (though who, following one more feature, Anne Devlin, would wait nearly two decades before the completion of her third, Nora). None of this really compensates for how badly aged all of it has become though, and only devotees of either its causes or its style will find much to excite them here. It is essential viewing for students of Irish film history though, a fact which does it no service and confines it to the scrap heap of history in a way which contradicts everything it is about. It is an irony its central character would have been none too happy about, but there it is.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.