Silent Grace (2002)

Silent Grace first published (Mar 2, 2004) by Movie Gazette

Arrested at a military checkpoint for joyriding, young glue-sniffing rebel-without-a-cause Aine (Cathleen Brady) insists before the court, in a willfully impetuous lie, that she is a Republican. Accordingly she is sent to the Republican section of the Armagh Women’s Prison, where the five genuine IRA prisoners, led by Eileen (Orla Brady), are engaged in a ‘Dirty Protest’, smearing with their own faeces the walls of the cells to which they have been confined for twenty-three hours a day. At first Aine is disgusted by her cellmates’ actions, but as she witnesses the injustice of their everyday teatment and the dignity of their struggle to be recognised as political prisoners rather than ‘ordinary decent criminals’, her respect for Eileen grows and she decides to join in the protest. When Eileen finally goes on hunger strike, not only Aine, but also the sympathetic Father McGarry (Robert Newman) and even the prison’s governor Cunningham (Connor Mullen), race to find a way to save Eileen’s life.

While Silent Grace focusses on women behind bars, it should in no way be confused with the exploitative B-grade sub-genre of ‘women-in-prison films’, typified by predatory lesbians, chains, knife fights, gratuitous nudity, sadistic wardens, shower scenes, violent escapes, and starring either Linda Blair, Brigitte Nielsen, Malcolm McDowell or Dyanne Thorne. On the contrary, Silent Grace is a subtle and sensitive exploration of humane resistance to inhumane treatment, inspired by the IRA prison hunger strikes of 1980 and the rarely acknowledged part played in them by female Republican prisoners.

Silent Grace opens with a characteristically strident soundbite from Thatcher at her most uncompromising, setting the fictionalised events in their proper political context; but where the Northern Island Office preferred to present everything as black and white and accepted no kind of negotiation, the film itself negotiates a delicate path through precisely those grey areas in which the criminal, the political and the personal all blur into one. Aine shows solidarity with her Republican cellmates even though she despises their politics. Eileen’s decision to sacrifice herself is driven by ideology – but also, implicitly, by her sense of desperation after being abandoned by her IRA boyfriend. Cunningham keeps intervening on Eileen’s behalf because he becomes more and more horrified by the inhumanity of her treatment – but also because of a basic chemistry between them that can never be openly acknowledged.

Written and directed by Maeve Murphy, Silent Grace is a deeply serious film that depicts brutal events and horrific conditions in a quiet, measured manner. The apolitical perspective of Aine which dominates the film allows us to see past the intransigent ideological positions of both sides to a more fragile humanity that is normally lost amidst all the public rhetoric. While the film does not flinch from the consequences of Republican Army killings (or shootings by the British army, for that matter), it also exposes the hypocrisy of a government which insisted publicly that Republicans were criminal rather than political prisoners, while at the same time treating them with a barbarity that no criminal would ever face.

In the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, Silent Grace may seem like ancient history, but at a time when justice is meted out Guantánamo-style, and ‘terrorists’ are detained without basic legal or even human rights, few films are currently more relevant.

Summary: This sensitive reflection on the climate of 1980s Northern Ireland, equally relevant to the ‘War on Terror’ being conducted when the film came out, is a quietly subtle drama exploring how easily humanity can get locked away during conflicts which admit no compromise.

© Anton Bitel