A steady flame of rapture and pain burns through Pat Murphy’s captivating Maeve from 1981, now rereleased: it is vehemently acted, superbly composed and remarkably shot on the streets of Belfast. It is a fierce, gaunt prose poem of a movie, born of the British Film Institute’s art-cinema aesthetic of that era, starkly realist and yet at the same time mysterious and wan. It is theatrically stylised, always stumbling across dreamlike tableaux of its own devising. There is something of Terence Davies here, and also Ibsen and Beckett. This was an approach that went out of style in British cinema quickly enough, although Richard Billingham’s Ray & Liz from 2018 is a potent, intelligent reminder.
Mary Jackson plays Maeve Sweeney, a young woman from a Catholic background in Belfast who comes home at the height of the Troubles after time away as a student in London. She is to make a reckoning with her past and with a home town from which she is alienated not just by sneering, swaggering soldiers, and the police from whom she once received a beating that put her in hospital, but by the sexist hostility of the republican movement itself, typified by her glowering boyfriend Liam, played by John Keegan. (Liam resents what he sees as the indulgent and divisive distraction of feminism and tells her: “I represent the women here more than you do.” The word “mansplaining” didn’t exist in 1981.) The movie flashes backwards and forwards in enigmatic episodes, showing her as a child, a schoolgirl and a young woman in Northern Ireland and in London.
Maeve’s sister is Roisin, wonderfully played by Bríd Brennan, to whom Maeve is tender and protective, but estranged by Roisin’s apparent acceptance of her inevitable slide towards submissive womanhood. Maeve says to her: “You take on a woman’s role to get out of your childhood, and then you have to find a way of getting out of that.” Both young women are aware of how they might resemble their “mammy”; that is, Eileen Sweeney, played by Belfast stage veteran Trudy Kelly, who has swallowed a lifetime of distress for the sake of daughters who are growing away from her. Then there is their roguish, fast-talking dad Martin, played by Mark Mulholland, who sells his cakes to bakeries all over the north from his van, a storyteller whose romantic side is beginning to coagulate into fear.
What a bittersweet madeleine this movie is, especially those posters for visiting bands we see before Roisin, Maeve and their mates pile into a black cab, having to share it with a drunk bloke. Ramones! UB40! Joe Cocker! The Tourists! To be honest, I wonder if Maeve and the gang would have been happier listening to any of them, rather than the local musicians we see them checking out. (Copyright issues preclude that, of course, in a low-budget movie.)
This film is a message from the past and a message from the present: this was the tragedy of Northern Ireland, washing over everyone like the sea across the Giant’s Causeway, site of the film’s later sequence. It is the tragedy that we have only just got away from, and which today’s Westminster Brexiters are now casually content to let people across the Irish sea stumble back into. Maeve is an uncompromisingly high-minded artwork and a document of human sadness.
• Maeve is released on 17 May on digital platforms.