Northern Irish Film - Top Picks: Middletown, Hunger, and Bloody Sunday

However far away you may be from the fresh air and rocky coasts of Northern Ireland, there’s no need to miss the fine storytelling and visual art of Northern film.

Here are a few Northern films to enjoy, available via the Internet, DVD, or if you’re in Belfast at the right time, a showing at the Queen’s Film Theatre. Each is remarkable for its story, acting and cinematography, and for the clear and uncompromising glimpse into the beauty, history and comedy of Northern Irish life.

Middletown (2006)

Written by award-winning Northern Irish playwright/screenwriter Daragh Carville (whose current film Cherrybomb stars Rupert Grint of Harry Potter fame), Middletown borrows much from Greek tragedy and the Old Testament, creating a classical conflict between two brothers struggling for their father’s blessing and their own individual identities.

The film opens on the small village of Middletown in 1950s Northern Ireland. We see two twelve-year-old boys, Gabriel in the village church, lauded by his father and vicar as being worthy of seminary. Moments later outside, Gabriel's brother Jim is slapped by his father for fighting another boy “in front of God’s house.” Their father is a stern and unrelenting figure, played with perfect Northern stolidity by Northern actor Gerard McSorley.

When we next see Gabriel, he is grown up—the Rev. Hunter, played by English actor Matthew MacFadyen, who returns to his home to take up the pulpit there, after 15 years in Africa. But though Gabriel claims salvation for his soul, he is lost, psychologically and emotionally. We see him often with half his face in shadow and know that inwardly he is a dark and unpredictable mire of self-loathing.

Carville has written a distinctly Northern story, one that outlines a deeply divisive Bible-based dogma, alongside the sort of impulsiveness that can spur action into violence at a moment’s notice.

A steady flow of Old Testament imagery follows: fire, gambling, curses, blood. As strong, though not articulated, are the presence of Celtic metaphors—Earth (Mother) at odds the human-made ideal of Heaven (Father).

Though it suffers somewhat from an overly dramatic soundtrack, Middletown is a classically rendered story of family and personal conflict, directed by Brian Kirk (Brotherhood and The Tudors).

It is also a story that will be utterly recognizable to those in the U.S. who have witnessed American religious zeal pushed to the point where the boundaries between reason and sanity seem to disappear.



Hunger (2008)

Hunger was directed by one of Britain’s finest visual artists, Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen. A strangely beautiful film, it chronicles the last month of the life of Provisional IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.

Bobby Sands was a young IRA man in the late ‘70s, jailed for weapons possession and placed with other paramilitary men in the infamous H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison, known as The Maze. Sands, a Belfast hero to Catholic nationalists, was elected to Parliament as an MP for west Belfast, even as he lay dying in a prison hospital. His protest lasted 66 days until he died in May 1981.

The film’s dialogue conjures inner images of both privation and salvation. It is aided greatly by the poetic Belfast language of the script, which reveals both the vulnerability of its characters and Northern mythology. The character of Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) brings real rational balance to several highly dramatic scenes.

In one scene, unusually filmed in one long take, Father Moran and Sands speak at a table in the prison visiting room. The strike will not work, Father Moran tells Bobby. It will only bring more degradation to those already suffering terribly, and their families.

But Bobby is resolute; he tells Father Moran a powerful story from his childhood that even the priest’s razor-sharp reasoning cannot cut through. Against the power of myth and archetype in the human psyche—particularly the Northern psyche—there is very little argument.

I first saw this film in a cinema in Belfast upon its release in 2008, and felt the occasional sharp breaths taken by my fellow audience members as they relived pieces of the Troubles. We all sat perfectly still after the film ended, as overwhelmed by the stark beauty of the piece as by its unforgettable story.



Bloody Sunday (2002)

Similar to Peter Travis’s film Omagh (2004), Bloody Sunday holds a respected place in the genre of Northern films that deal with true-life stories central to the Troubles that plagued Northern Ireland for more than thirty years.

And similar to Omagh, Bloody Sunday tells its story not through Hollywood heroes and villains, but through the lives of every day individuals—sons and mothers, student activists and local politicians, British soldiers and IRA members.

The film’s cinéma vérité style reveals characters based on the actual individuals who were in the city of Derry on Sunday January 30, 1972, when 13 peaceful unarmed Catholic civil rights demonstrators were shot and killed by British paratroopers. Most of those killed were still in their teens; a fourteenth died later in hospital. It was a moment so senseless in its violence, one burned so indelibly into Northern memory, that it became known as Bloody Sunday—a catalyst for much of the political, military and paramilitary action that soon became every day life in the North.

Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, Bloody Sunday was directed by Paul Greengrass and stars veteran film actor James Nesbitt as a local politician coordinating much of the demonstration, and dealing with its terrible aftermath.

Due to their violent content, none of these films are suitable for children under 17. But for adults, they can vary from fun thriller to intelligent, even poetic Northern journeys. They are also cultural excursions; helpful for anyone wishing to understand Northern Irish life and culture, past and present.



Caroline Oceana Ryan is the Northern Ireland Editor for Wandering Educators, and Author, AN OLD CASTLE STANDING ON A FORD: One Yank’s Life in an Almost Peaceful Belfast (Eloquent Books, 2010)