The epochal “Bloody Sunday” — the massacre of thirteen unarmed Londonderry civilians by the British Army on January 30, 1972 — is the stuff from which great drama could be drawn. The stories of the individuals caught up in the violence, the political machinations behind the scenes, the obscuring fog of lies and propaganda, and that day’s transformation of Irish politics offer a myriad of avenues into this complex historical event.
Channel Four’s Sunday, written by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Charles McDougall, is the first of two recent British television movies on the subject to reach the United States; the second, Bloody Sunday, written and directed by Paul Greengrass, will appear here this fall. While attempting to encompass the broader scope of events, Sunday’s “dramatised reconstruction” focuses intermittently on a single Catholic family, the Youngs, one of whose sons, John, was shot to death.
McGovern, who gets top billing in Sunday, is a passionate writer and a usually reliable craftsman. He has written such films as Liam (2000) and Priest (1994), as well as the British TV series Cracker, on which McDougall also worked. But with Sunday, McGovern evidently felt so confined to passing along information gleaned from British government documents exposing the army’s culpability (many made public through the ongoing Saville inquiry) that he was afraid to free his dramatic imagination. Sunday seems so concerned with sending its message loudly that it avoids introducing nuances.
The dialogue is crushingly literal, squarely on-the-nose, sloganeering rather than conversation.
“We’re Catholics. We are shite.”
“Can’t wait for it – the enemy face-to-face.”
“I’m an electrician for the British army.”
“They knew there’d be no IRA there! The IRA promised they’d stay away!”
“There was no provocation!”
“Thirteen Fenian bastards!”
“We did exactly what we’ve been trained to do.”
If such cartoonish storytelling were all there is to Sunday, it wouldn’t be worth writing about or seeing. But there is another, somewhat more successful dimension to the film — the visual. Much of the film, thankfully, shuts up and observes the action, vividly filmed by director McDougall and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. They effectively use a mixture of hand-held whip pans and breathless tracking shots, rapidly edited by Barrie Vince in collage-like fashion to draw the audience into the documentary-like immediacy of those often chaotic events.
McDougall not only stages the scenes of violence expertly, he handles his extras with skill. The faces and the gestures seem authentic and unforced. The people are not self-consciously “acting” but seem genuinely caught up in the events. The settings seem lifelike and the action rough and unstaged, always with a sense of more life (and death) happening just off-screen.
Still, a director can only do so much with a weak script. The Youngs are sketched in only perfunctorily, even more so than they would have been in a typical American TV movie. As a result, Sunday is less powerful than a tree docudrama such as Oliver Stone’s JFK and less informative than a documentary. Sunday should have opted either for a more intense and nuanced treatment of the Youngs as emblematic characters or for a Battle of Algiers–style reconstruction without a conventional focus on central characters. Commenting on both Sunday and Bloody Sunday, Germaine Greer pointed out, “I would have thought the last thing, frankly, that the events of Bloody Sunday needed was dramatisation — it was astonishingly dramatic in itself.”
McGovern and McDougall frequently contrast the violence with false or fragmentary media images. In the latter part of the film, they employ a flashback structure going back and forth between the whitewashing of Bloody Sunday at the 1972 Widgery inquiry and scenes exposing the lies in the official account. Such devices might have been used more profitably to frame the entire film as a dialogue between troth and official history, rather than using the Youngs here and there as audience identification figures.
Eva Birthistle, who plays the pivotal role of Maura Young, sister of the murdered John Young (Barry Mullan), has little to do but scream and cry hysterically. She becomes a bore at times when the film is reaching for emotional heights. Often in movies, restraint can be far more moving than flat-out expression of emotion. A case in point is the work of the fine Irish actress Brid Brennan as Mrs. Young.
When Maura demands to know why her mother doesn’t cry over her dead son but forgives the soldier who killed him, Mrs. Young responds, “I’ve cried, all right. You never seen it. You never will. My sons won’t either. For if they saw what this is doing to me, they’d take up the gun and they’d die. I forgive that soldier, aye. But it’s not for him. It’s for the sons I’ve got left.” This is one of the film’s few good passages of dramatic writing. Yet it is problematical.
Ultimately, by climaxing with the decision of Leo Young (Ciarán McMenamin) to obey his mother’s wishes and not join the IRA, Sunday feeds into complacency and delusion by sending the message that Catholics in Northern Ireland are wrong to fight back. The film suggests that they should have just suffered passively or continued to march and be mowed down.
Would a genuine peace process, like that brought about by Gandhi against the British colonialists in India, have resulted from turning the other cheek? Unlike the far more complex 1996 Terry George/Jim Sheridan film Some Mother’s Son, Sunday doesn’t address that issue. The fact that it reopens the wounds of Bloody Sunday without treating them with the healing medicine of intelligence may serve, ironically, to further complicate the already tenuous process of finding peace. ♦