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Why does the latest film about Northern Ireland distort the reality of terrorism and sentimentalise the IRA? The answer lies in Hollywood's taste for simplistic melodrama, says Boyd Tonkin
Almost a year ago, a couple of hundred yards from where I'm writing this article, the IRA murdered two ordinary Londoners. It probably never intended to kill the staff of a newsagent's shop and wreck their families' lives. But civilians who foolishly insist on working near so-called "prestige" or "Establishment" locations such as Canary Wharf had better take the consequences. So runs the iron-clad logic of the bombers. And any work of art that tries to grapple in a mature and realistic way with guerrilla warfare either has to face the truth about the suffering it causes, or else condemn itself to empty rhetoric and emotional dishonesty.

The Canary Wharf casualties - and thousands like them - will not have crossed the mind of the audiences whose votes made Terry George's Some Mother's Son the most popular movie shown at last summer's Edinburgh Film Festival.

The film, which opens in Britain tomorrow, stars Helen Mirren - who also co-produced it - in gritty downbeat mood as the non-political mother of a jailed IRA volunteer. She befriends the hard-line mother of another prisoner, and the pair are drawn into the murky backstage politics around the 1981 H-block hunger strikes. Ten IRA men died during the campaign of self-starvation after the British government toughened their prison regime. The first, Bobby Sands, had previously been elected from his cell as a Westminster MP.

Ironically, after all the unwarranted fuss about Neil Jordan's humane and politically complex epic Michael Collins, here comes a screen drama of Irish violence that really does want to sentimentalise the military wing of the republican movement.

The Belfast-born George, once an internee in the Maze himself, later became a New York magazine writer and co-scripted Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father. That film, as anyone who saw its BBC outing last weekend will know, deals with a shameful state conspiracy against blameless men and doesn't express a smidgeon of sympathy for the actual Guildford bombers.

Here, on the other hand, is a movie that merely shows an IRA active-service unit bloodlessly potting an army patrol from a safe, antiseptic distance.

The punter in the multiplex in Minneapolis or Melbourne would never know that attacks on "soft" civilian targets have formed a central plank of Provisional IRA strategy since 1971 or so. Save for a brief, farcical scene in an Orange pub, the film erases the existence of the Loyalist majority in the Six Counties.

It scrambles the historical record to the extent that a fictitious body called the "Unionist and Conservative Party" stands in Northern Ireland elections; meanwhile, a nationalist MP is described as holding "the balance of power" at a time when Margaret Thatcher commanded an overall majority of 43.

True, the film's tone gradually darkens and deepens. Mirren finds herself torn between flint-hearted militants in both the IRA and British intelligence, as Sands and the other hunger strikers sicken and slowly die. At one point, a platoon of cheery squaddies even saves her car from the rising tide when she gets stuck giving a friend a driving lesson on a beach.

A decent, old-fashioned gent from the diplomatic corps tries to broker a deal, while a snarling Thatcherite with estuary vowels sabotages his efforts. But one basic untruth disables Some Mother's Son as historical chronicle and as straightforward human drama. It shows, quite correctly, that British intelligence unleashed a dirty war against the IRA shortly after Mrs Thatcher came to power. It fails miserably to show the bloody and reckless campaign that provoked that reaction.

The film's focus on the hunger strike, with its aura of passive martyrdom, exactly reflects the IRA's priorities for international propaganda at the time. When Sands and his co-protesters - who had been stripped of privileges as part of a British strategy to hasten a showdown - attend a prison Mass clad in their beards and blankets, saccharine religious imagery swamps the screen. This is not political argument, but cloying emotional blackmail.

In contrast, the much- vilified Michael Collins turned its hero's rising doubts about the "mayhem" he deployed into the motor of its plot. It showed that Collins exerted a leverage way beyond his military strength because he targeted crucial British agents - but it let those agents appear as human beings too. And its broad historical sweep located Britain's Irish wars within a 700-year colonial history, rather than presenting them as an archetypal shoot-out between rival gangs of white hats and black hats.

For Terry George, the Brits will always wear the villain's headgear. But an Orange-tinted counterpart that switched these roles around wouldn't make for any better art. Miranda Richardson's hysterical IRA psychopath in The Crying Game doesn't get us any nearer to the truth than the ludicrous cartoon of an MI5 bovver boy who bullies Helen Mirren in Some Mother's Son.

Why does this brand of sentimental melodrama disfigure most attempts to put the Northern Irish trauma on film? In other media, after all, the Troubles that began again in 1968 have spawned a generation of searching and clear-sighted artists who move beyond reflex tribal loyalties. From Tom Paulin's poems and essays to Frank McGuinness's plays, creative minds have sought and found a grown-up response to the anguish on their doorstep.

The answer, inevitably, has a lot to do with the tastes and beliefs of Irish America. Some sort of fatal synergy links the American refusal to face the reality of power and violence in Ireland with the infantile fairy- tales that pass for committed film-making in Hollywood.

Typically, Some Mother's Son has backing from a mainstream source in the US entertainment industry: Ted Turner's Castle Rock corporation. It would be good to know when Castle Rock plans to invest in a similar movie about one of the dozen undercover wars of torture and massacre that the US has waged in its own Latin American backyard. For Main Street, USA and its mass media, Ireland remains a free-fire zone of political fantasy and zero-cost wish-fulfilment.

The real objection to Some Mother's Son is not that it whitewashes a guerrilla movement that chooses to kill civilians when it deems fit. You could imagine a much more tough-minded propaganda film that did exactly that without insulting its viewers. It is that Terry George pretends to tell a slice of real history (the film begins with news footage of Thatcher quoting St Francis on the steps of 10 Downing Street in 1979) but then delivers a playground game of goodies and baddies. The fact that one IRA diehard, who thwarts and tricks Helen Mirren's character, turns out to be a wrong'un too doesn't mitigate that crudity.

It should be possible to make a film that justifies anti-state or anti- colonial warfare while avoiding this type of fraud. The great precedent here is the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo's masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers, made in 1965.

Pontecorvo's savage and stringent portrayal of the war between French paras and the FLN in the Algiers casbah of the late Fifties has visibly affected every serious film about guerrilla violence since - from the work of Costa-Gavras and Francesco Rosi up to and including Michael Collins. We never really doubt that Algeria deserves its freedom from the racist idiocy of French rule. But neither does Pontecorvo ever shy away from the pain and horror that goal brings, as both sides twist a sickening ratchet of cruelty.

Pontecorvo's film throws a harsh light on the techniques that most clandestine rebel groups employ, however just their cause. Another gap that weakens Some Mother's Son and the Ulster thrillers that preceded it is their inability to show on screen how the IRA actually works. In part, this is down to understandable ignorance - after all, last year's Docklands and Manchester bombs wrong-footed the British security agencies, even after 25 years of infiltration. Mostly, though, it reflects a coy reluctance to display the reasoning that leads participants to use the bomb, the bullet and the baseball bat.

Instead, we eavesdrop on the usual sinister crew of Establishment insiders as they cook up provocations in the secret corridors of power - a feature that George's film shares with Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda. Of course, such spooks do exist. The worst they have contrived in Northern Ireland - especially during the crazy days of black propaganda and "PsyOps" in the mid-Seventies - probably exceeded anything that has so far reached the screen. But the glaring oversight that skews soft-centred "human" angles on the Irish war is that they tell us precious little about how today's IRA thinks and plans and acts. Without both sides of the equation in the frame, myths and gestures take control.

WB Yeats - who knew more than most about the "terrible beauty" of Irish republican revolt - once said that we make rhetoric out of our quarrel with others, but poetry out of our quarrel with ourselves. Recent movies with a modern Northern Irish setting have been strong on rhetoric, but desperately weak on poetry. Paradoxically, the best way to dramatise that quarrel with oneself that even ardent revolutionaries have might be to focus unconditionally (as Michael Collins did) on a committed warrior, not on some baffled onlooker caught up in the conflict.

That, at least, would flush the debate on political violence and its limits out into the open, rather than masking it in the evasive Irish mist that wafts through Some Mother's Son.

In fact, IRA protagonists have proved as rare as Ulster Catholics called Billy in the 50 years since James Mason's hunted gunman lurched through the film noir fog of Carol Reed's Odd Man Out. And, for insight and historical perspective, nothing in the Troubles cinema can match Margarethe von Trotta's portrait of the Baader-Meinhoff activist Gudrun Ensslin, in her 1981 film The German Sisters.

Von Trotta's original title means "the leaden time". As this week's attacks in Belfast show, the British state is still living through its own age of lead. But films that choose to shirk the messy truth can hardly claim to lift its burden on us all. Films, The Tabloid, page 7