- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2000

''Titanic Town" alludes to Belfast, circa 1972, when sectarian enmity between Protestants and Catholics assures a partitioned and embattled city. A stroll by the venerable Harland & Wolff shipyard, where the Titanic was built 60 years earlier, clarifies the allusion, otherwise irrelevant to the belated and inadequate topicality of this British film, which begins a second season of potentially neglected titles acquired by a small New York distributor, the Shooting Gallery.

The Cineplex Odeon Foundry, the beneficiary of "Such a Long Journey" and "Croupier" during a commendable first season, again plays host to the selections for at least two weeks each. It's difficult to envision "Titanic Town" as a keeper.

Based on a semiautobiographical novel by Mary Costello, the film revolves around a fictionalized version of her mother, Tess, who was conspicuously and sometimes perilously involved in a mothers' peace initiative that made some headway, despite failing to make a decisive impression on the belligerents, including belligerent peers in the Catholic neighborhood, Andersontown, where the Costello family lived.

Julie Walters portrays the fictional matriarch, Bernie McPhelimy, with sincerity and gusto, but the movie never contrives a way of juxtaposing or reconciling elements that obviously clash but are meant to enhance authenticity and pathos. To oversimplify, the sporadic, ominous war episodes are always at odds with the conciliatory, peacemongering episodes except where a sporadic similarity is shared.

In addition, the plot that fitfully updates Bernie as a stubborn intermediary for moderation and mercy is a mismatch for the subplot that updates a budding romance between her teen-age daughter Annie (Nuala O'Neill) and a dashing medical student, Owen (Ciaran McMenamin), whose intentions prove devious, though not monstrously insincere. The mother's preoccupations and the daughter's are meant to converge in effective ways during the climactic and concluding episodes, but they always seem to belong to separate, shortchanged scenarios.

There's an extraordinary payoff situation that ought to be a supreme gut-wrencher. In context, it remains strangely unanchored. Embittered by her mother's diplomatic activity, which she associates with vanity and family neglect, Annie takes an overdose of Valium and confesses her unhappiness. The alarmed and chastened Bernie leads her toward an emergency room. Annie throws up en route, and we discover that their hideously intimate trek has provided a spectacle for British soldiers who happen to be on patrol and lurking in the shadows of a back street.

There's so little sense of Bernie and Annie sharing the same house, not to mention the same movie, that this interlude feels overbalanced. It doesn't grow out of a sustained impression of affection and estrangement between mother and child. Owen gets a line that sums up the movie's chronic patchiness and superficiality: "Don't mix things that don't go."

Conceptually, it's sound of director Roger Michell to want to juxtapose the normal and abnormal, the strife-torn and the tranquil. In practice, he leaves the movie with the equivalent of a wandering mind. Sunny little courtship getaways with Annie and Owen seem to be robbing Bernie's public struggles of coherence and follow-through. Returning the ill favor, her emergence as some kind of go-between, useful to both the IRA and government in Northern Ireland, intrudes on a potentially stirring account of young love compromised by civil war. "Titanic Town" definitely sinks, but you don't feel as if anything imposing has been lost.

One and 1/2 out of four stars

TITLE: "Titanic Town"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and domestic conflict)

CREDITS: Directed by Roger Michell. Screenplay by Anne Devlin, based on the novel by Mary Costello.

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

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