Neil Jordan noted in his Michael Collins film diary that two traditional Irish motifs were missing from his historical epic: "a funeral and a hunger strike. Two things endemic to the mythology". Some Mother's Son, released here this week, bravely confronts one such facet of Republicanism, the 1981 IRA Maze hunger strike. The film bears a titular resemblance to 1993's In the Name of the Father (both were written and directed by Terry George and Jim Sheridan), but its approach is markedly different.

Although both films focus on a central family relationship, In the Name of the Father's depiction of the Guildford Four's wrongful imprisonment left no doubt as to the goodies (Irish innocents) and the baddies (British coppers). Its righteous, and rightful, indignation at British injustice could be seen as re-fuelling the Republican myth-machine. By contrast, Some Mother's Son fictionally conflates the experiences of the IRA prisoners and their families; and in doing so, the elements which fuel their commitment come under scrutiny.

The cult of martyrdom has been inherent in Republican mythology from the 1916 Easter Rising to the veneration of hunger-striker Bobby Sands (played in the film by John Lynch with a messianic demeanour which seems to mesmerise his fellow inmates). And, the figure of the stoical mother is a familiar Irish literary stereotype. But in Some Mother's Son, the impressive Helen Mirren refuses to comply with either historical antecedent: an apolitical, middle-class mother forced into a public campaign on behalf of her convicted terrorist son (Aidan Gillen), she realises they are caught in the middle of a futile ideological deadlock. Signing her son off the strike is an exit from the historical - and mythical - determinism.

The film's reception in Britain will, inevitably, depend on the acceptance of Mirren and Gillen - like Stephen Rea's reluctant terrorist in Neil Jordan's The Crying Game - as complex, but humane, figures. Controversial and challenging as these characterisations are, they might just prevent the re-appearance of any more risible IRA baddies like Sean Bean's psycho- hitman in Patriot Games, in Irish-centred cinema in the future.

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