Mother's Day

Mike Houlihan, founder of the Irish American Movie Hooley festival, is so
dedicated to Irish-American filmmakers and culture that this year he
screened 50 domestic and international submissions before he and Barbara
Scharres, director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, settled
on the three films they felt were the most consonant with the Hooley’s
mission of furthering the traditions of Irish storytelling.

Among them is Ireland’s highest-grossing indigenous production of 2017, Cardboard Gangsters, a crime story in the vein of early Matthew
Vaughn, Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino, and Matthieu Kassovitz films about
small-time crooks in over their heads. One might call its Darndale setting
on the northern fringes of Dublin the Celtic version of a Paris banlieue:
the district is the poorest in the Irish capital, plagued by narcotics,
violence, and a general lack of opportunities for its low-income housing
residents. The film’s protagonist is Jason (John Connors), a bruiser still
living at home with his mom, who’s in hock to the local drug kingpin, Derra
(Jimmy Smallhorne). Jason’s occasional gigs as a nightclub DJ don’t go far
toward lowering her debt, so he decides, with the help of his lowlife crew,
to encroach on Derra’s territory, a ballsy but tragically ill-advised move.

Because many criminals have poor impulse control, letting their addictions
and testosterone override any vestiges of logic, it’s not surprising that
as Jason stresses out he’s tempted by Derra’s sultry wife, Kim (Kierston
Wareing of Fish Tank), while his own hothead sidekick, Dano (Fionn
Walton), proves to be a weaseling, colossal bungler. As the gang war
escalates, Jason turns as lethal as Derra-at which point any sympathy for
our “hero” is severely taxed. But director Mark O’Connor shows considerable
skill at orchestrating action sequences, and Connors is very expressive as
a strongman who’s not strong enough to thrive.

is an oddity, part ghost story, part mystery, but mostly a showcase for
Irish-American writer-director Sean Hartofilis’s acting and musical
talents. He plays Martin, a widower whiling away time in his expensive
lakefront home in rural upstate New York. When not swimming or singing
plaintive songs (some traditional Irish ballads, others the filmmaker’s
original compositions), he’s given to odd behavior like cleaning house in
his bathrobe while dancing, Fred Astaire-like, with his floor mop. A cop
checking on a missing persons report (the director’s father, George
Hartofilis, channeling Peter Falk’s Columbo) inadvertently sends the
crumbling Martin into a tailspin, and apparitions of his dead wife
increase—or are they products of Martin’s unsettled mind? That we never
find out is the underdeveloped screenplay’s biggest flaw.

The strongest of the festival’s trio of films is Mother’s Day, a
moving BBC drama based on a real-life late 20th-century campaign to end
“the troubles” in Northern Ireland. On March 20, 1993, the Irish Republican
Army set off bombs in a shopping area of Warrington, a town near the west
coast of England, catching weekend customers unawares and killing
three-year-old Johnathan Ball and mortally wounding 12-year-old Timothy
Parry. The next morning, on Mother’s Day, Dublin housewife and mom Susan
McHugh (Vicky McClure) reads a newspaper account of the terrorist attack
and is so disturbed that she will become motivated to lead a peace
initiative. Eventually she and her husband, Arthur (David Wilmot), cross
the Irish Sea to arrive on the Parrys’ doorstep, greatly surprising Tim’s
mother, Wendy (Anna Maxwell Martin), and father, Colin (Daniel Mays), who
nonetheless welcome them in.

Thus begins an unlikely alliance that will lead the two couples on journeys
to places they hadn’t imagined visiting—including Belfast, where the
McHughs have some gut-wrenching encounters with the families of Ulster’s
victims in the long-running internecine conflict. One mother, remarking
that Susan knows the names of the Warrington children, suspects the
Dubliner doesn’t know the name of the Belfast woman’s own murdered
daughter. Chagrined, Susan admits she doesn’t, prompting the aggrieved
parent to ask if one slain child is more important than another.

It’s in the many keenly observed moments like this that director Fergus
O’Brien exhibits both a sharp eye for entrenched behavior and a humanist
belief in the inherent impulse toward goodness that can inspire change for
the better. O’Brien began as a TV and film documentary maker in 2003, then
turned to narrative films with last year’s TV movie Against the Law. Mays was just as stirring in that film as he is
in Mother’s Day; here he’s well matched by McClure, Wilmot, and
Martin, who renders every gesture of her reticent character telling beyond
words.   v