September 17, 1990 12:00 PM

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Iain Glen

Where is that Alistair Cooke when you really need him?

If you pay very close attention, by the end of this British film you can figure out that it is probably a very personalized metaphor for the everybody-loses situation in Northern Ireland. But in the beginning, particularly, it’s hard to tell who’s fighting whom, and for what.

You have to know, for one thing, that the Black and Tans were, in early 20th century Irish slang, British auxiliary troops. This film is set in Northern Ireland right after World War I, and it’s the lynching of an Irishman who is a Black and Tan sympathizer that sets off a string of gruesomely violent events.

These events concern the estate of a Protestant family that has a barrel-making business—Michael (Out of Africa) Kitchen, Julie Christie and their three children. Kitchen seems to have reached a kind of understanding with the Catholic-based Irish Republican Army, with whom many of his employees are affiliated. It is some of his workmen who hang the sympathizer, inciting one of the victim’s English buddies to burn down Kitchen’s home. That kills Kitchen’s two daughters, and the buddy shoots Kitchen, so the soon-to-be-alcoholic Christie and a young son, played as a boy by Sean McClory, are left to fend for themselves.

The son grows up to be Glen (Mountains of the Moon), who plays his revenge-seeking character with a furtive, despairing look that suits the gloominess of his surroundings. He has a brief affair with his English cousin Mastrantonio, and it’s the daughter that results from their one sexual experience who becomes the movie’s most flagrant symbol. With her mixed English and Irish blood, she is never accepted by her classmates, never knows her father (who has fled to some even grimmer-looking place—the exact location is never identified) and eventually becomes autistic.

It doesn’t hurt to know that while all this has been going on, Ireland has been divided into its current configuration—the independent Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the embattled territory that remains part of Great Britain. You won’t learn any of that by watching the movie though. So, despite the fact that the grief artfully reflected by Christie, Glen and Mastrantonio is touching, its context never becomes clear.

Pat (Cal) O’Connor directed from a script written by newcomer Michael Hirst. O’Connor himself is from Ireland, and he may have been too close to this story for his movie’s good, particularly to the extent that he wanted it to help Americans understand the relentless tragedy that Northern Ireland still embodies today, 70 years later. (PG-13)

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