DIRTY WAR

 

Maeve Murphy's belatedly released film was first seen here three years ago this month at the Galway Film Fleadh, where it was shown within 48 hours of Les Blair's H3. Both films chronicle traumatic experiences in Northern Ireland prisons during 1981, each focusing on republican prisoners who are willing to give up their lives for their cause.

Coincidentally, the dramatic conduit of each film is a naïve young newcomer who is taken under the wing of a senior Provo, and through whose eyes the subsequent events are observed. Both films also feature an authority figure whose essentially sympathetic approach to the prisoners is undermined by senior forces.

Whereas H3 clearly operates from a republican point of view and makes no pretence at balance, Silent Grace is unusually even-handed for this genre.

It is set in the women's prison in Armagh and its key fictional element is the placing of an apolitical but impressionable young joyrider (Cathleen Bradley) in the same wing as the five IRA women led by the single-minded Eileen (Orla Brady).

Refused political status by the Thatcher government, the women embark on a "dirty protest", refusing to wash and smearing the walls of their cells with excrement. When Eileen's boyfriend joins the hunger strike in the Maze prison, she defies the orders of the army council and refuses to take food.

The drama is anchored in Brady's subtle, intelligent and dignified portrayal of Eileen, affirming all the promise she demonstrated in the pivotal role of the factually based Irish drama, A Love Divided.

The first feature film written, produced and directed by Maeve Murphy, Silent Grace is an effectively low-key and slow-burning treatment of events that have faded into history. She commendably eschews hysteria and didacticism in her well-judged dramatisation of a story rooted in its humanist agenda, and her film surmounts the limitations of a very low budget to emerge as a work of sincerity and concern.