Watching the North – Maeve (1981)

02nd May 2020 6 Minute Read

In the first of a new series, Ruairi McCann takes a deep dive into some of the foundational films that have come from this part of the world. First up, Pat Murphy's feminist alternative to the conventional narrative of the Troubles.

Since the Troubles have so disproportionately shaped the way of life here in Northern Ireland—from the very top, in how the government is structured, right down to level of individual memory and allegiances—it is no surprise that it would hold a significant sway over this region’s cinema. That in both fiction and documentary, there are a great many filmmakers for whom the conflict is either to the fore of the work or else in the back; the elephant in the room.

Maeve (1981) is distinct both as an early example of Northern Irish feminist cinema but also a film that uses that lens to counter this dominating influence. Concerned as it is with the possibility of redefining yourself away from the strictures of a society that, under the pressure of conflict and division, can fix gender and personhood into a constraining form.

Directed by Pat Murphy and John Davies, it follows a young woman called Maeve Sweeney (Molly Jackson) who, after years of living in London, returns to Belfast to visit her family. It is a trip she doesn’t take lightly. Since she originally left to escape not just the obvious oppressions and unpredictability of living in a de facto warzone, but the alienation of being woman who can find no footing in a male centric republican identity and view of history.

Instead of fitting Maeve’s life into a linear story or even a conventional flashback structure, the film cuts back and forth between the past and present with little warning. In the present, we see that her relationship with her parents, played by Mark Mulholland and Trudy Kelly, while already strained by their differing values has been further muted by distance. And while she is closer to her sharp-tongued younger sister Roisin (an early role for Irish film and television mainstay Brid Brennan), there is still tension between them. Her chafing against Maeve’s clear discomfort with being back at home positions Roisin as the literal road not taken. As the woman who stayed rather than the one who opted for exodus.

These scenes in the present; the complex relationships they depict and Maeve’s own point of view, are fleshed out with dispatches from her childhood. Spent peripatetic, in and out of Belfast and rural Co. Down, following her father’s year-long stint in prison. He ended up there covering for the IRA activities of his brother Joe, played by a menacingly avuncular Mel Austin. The film also cuts back to the lead up to her first departure, which marked the end of her relationship with her boyfriend, Liam (John Keegan). Undone bit by bit by a series of escalating arguments where he paints her decision, as a feminist, to exclude herself as a convenient excuse for her solipsism; to take flight and call it fight. While she criticizes his version of republicanism as limited, that his conception of its struggle sidelines her point of view as a woman.

Murphy—who despite not being the only director credited is generally regarded as the film’s principal author—has named Ken Loach as a key influence. Placing Maeve within a world cinema tradition of social-minded realism, as evident in that it gives a generally realistic account of a young catholic woman living during the conflict’s peak.

But its methods sit uneasily with this definition. For one, the camera work is mostly static or carefully paced pans instead of the bustling handheld typically associated with realistic cinematography. Here it is attuned not to the desire to capture as much of this fractured society with a flash in the pan sense of life as it is —though we do get a good sense of Belfast as a cordoned and crumbling city—but instead to rhythm of the extended and detailed conversations which make up most of a film that is deeply intimate and interior (in both senses of the word).

Dialogue driven, one on one encounters where Maeve’s psychology, convictions and how they jar with her family’s and Liam’s view of the world are gradually revealed. This is pulled off through scrupulous detailed scripting and acting but also more specifically through a mixture of naturalistic and more stylized performance styles. The scenes where Maeve and Liam talk their politics are a good example, as their dialogue is delivered in a very didactic style, with each of points constructed and spoken with a consistency and clarity rarely found when someone is speaking off the cuff with their hackles raised. But here straying from reality allows the ideas of the film to sound out without simplification or sacrificing their force. These scenes too are staged in overtly symbolic settings. Atop Cave Hill, where a commanding view of Belfast is almost always in shot. And in Friar’s Bush Graveyard, Belfast’s oldest example of a site purpose built for creating and maintaining individual and collective legacies and so the perfect stage for an argument about how the north’s bloody history should be constructed and told.

Murphy and Davies have also found a compelling film language to express experience of living under the security apparatus of the time. A state of perpetual anxiety, where the soldiers drifting phantom-like in the background could with little notice come knocking at your door or emerge from the shadows as a very real and upfront threat. The almost total absence of a score and the use of clearly recorded, direct sound mimics how the characters always have their ears cocked, all too aware that every burst of mass movement or gunfire, no matter how distant, could at any moment become dangerously immediate.

For women, this regimen of control and surveillance spends outsized attention on their bodies. Stopped in the street by a patrol while walking home from a late night bar shift, Roisin has to fend off aggressive questioning paired with fumbling physical harassment. And to go on a night out, we see that Maeve and Roisin first have to pass through a gauntlet of security checkpoints. It is this series of systematic body violations, perpetrated by bored, frightened or power-drunk soldiers, which sum up the rigidity and dehumanisation that Maeve has tried to leave behind.

For Murphy, this debut will be followed by films such as Anne Devlin (1984), Nora (2000) and the Irish-language Ar Lorg Sorcha (2006), which take a more straightforward approach to narrative while displaying a commitment to depicting lives of women whose roles in Irish history and culture have been confined to the margins. While her latest film, Tana Bana (2015), an observation of the toil and trade of Muslim silk weavers in the Indian city of Varanasi, 2 years in the making, is an overt expression of a documentary impulse and the diversity of her relatively small body of work.

That she had made so few films though is unfortunate. Without discounting her involvement with the now defunct Filmbase, the Screen Director’s Guild of Ireland and her work as a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast and elsewhere, it is perhaps indicative of the past and present obstacles that lie between female filmmakers and sources of funding. Especially when their subjects are deemed obscure and their methods against the grain.

Regardless, Maeve is a landmark in Northern Irish film history, as much for its singular and vital filmmaking as the ground struck by its point of view.

Watch Maeve on the  BFI Player.

Ruairí McCann: @langsmonkey

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