The Blanket

'H3.' Directed by Les Blair. Screenplay by Lawrence McKeown and Brian Campbell. New Irish Cinema film festival. American Cinematheque, Hollywood, California. March 16th 2002. (90 minutes, 2001)
Reviewed by Seaghan O Murchu


The production notes ( inform that a sign was hung up on Bray's Ardmore Studios set for those playing the 1981 blanketmen: 'COLD HUNGRY SCARED'. The film opens as a single maggot crawls over the mattress of Seamus Scullion (Brendan Mackey), setting up expectations of a gritty filthy docudrama or a biopic of Bobby Sands (Mark O'Halloran) and his comrades. Instead, a surprisingly antiseptic, even detached look at anonymity and boredom begins the plot of 'H3'. Especially in the early part of the story, the unshorn blanketmen assume (ironically 'uniform') camaraderie that erases much of their distinctive dossiers. With the notable exception of the shivering new kid on the block, the teenaged Declan McCann (Aidan Campbell), the veterans on the wings appear remarkably fit, well-fed, and blasé. No more maggots are seen in the film, at least from my row in the theatre; the cells appear quite clean considering their excremental coatings. Likewise, their prison guards swing and swagger largely bereft of individual detail. While the efforts of the screenwriters (veterans of Long Kesh both; McKeown of the 1981 protest) seek to differentiate the various refusals to conform, the direction hurries along the pace of their predicament.

For instance, a brief flashback shows a dreamlike account of Seamus' arrest, but otherwise we have no backstory to fill in for him, other than his advice to cellmate Declan that "the first ten years" are toughest. While we know Declan's from Tyrone (his youthful introduction affords the audience a chance to be told the intricacies of the block by the old cellmate, and he serves as a stand-in for the young prisoners who, the same age roughly as McKeown was in 1981, must learn when to shout back and when to stay silent), his lack of explanation for his imprisonment (beyond a vague line by a policeman) obscures his past experience and forces one to focus only on his present incarceration. Probably deliberate, the film's downplaying of the republican actions that led to imprisonment heightens valiant roles given to the blanketmen, but leaves the spectator little clue as to what precisely animates the faith and the vision possessed by those on the dirty protest. The demands met and unmet by the prison officers and the British, while explained, remain buried in the expository script, and overall the intent of the republicans to seek political status--and eventually to place Sands in the running for Parliament--remains blurred, especially for any viewer coming to this film with but a cursory knowledge of the context of early 1980s republicanism and the past history of the earlier hunger strike and the failure to gain such demands. It also is unabashedly pro-republican.

Most effective in this film prove the details familiar to readers of McKeown's two books: the passing of the comms across the corridors; the sceal spoken and sung; relieving one's self in the corner of the cell; the mirror searches; even the melodramatic touch of all the prisoners over all the blocks joining in 'A Nation Once Again'. Ray Harman's electronic score adds tension to the early scenes, especially as seen through Declan's fresh eyes; later, however, the synthesised swelling into bathos diminishes the power of the images (all sickly greens and fluorescent concrete captured coolly by cinematographer Owen McPolin) as the decision unfolds to undertake a hunger strike.

McKeown and Campbell's script deftly adds subtle strokes. When Declan is asked what music's popular on the outside, he responds: 'Police. Madness. The Undertones.' Appropriate choices--two that highlight the conditions of the outside North; the third, of course, the response of Derry's pop stars. Furthermore, he is cajoled to assay the 'Tones' 'My Cousin Kevin'--the tale of a 'mamma's pride and joy, his mother's little golden boy' the opposite of such a lad as Declan, at least by conventional standards. Later, when asked where else he'd rather be, Declan opts for Rio de Janeiro; Seamus picks Conamara. Nothing further is said. The viewer is left to ponder the choice each character makes, and why.

Post-wash and haircuts, the characters on C and D wings emerge more easily distinguished, and the plot shifts to Seamus' boyhood pal Ciaran (Dean-Lennox Kelly) , who sees the protests as futile and puts on the squeaky boots (although you can't hear them in the film--a touch I was expecting as he paced down the corridor shod). Another comrade, Madra (Tony Devlin) allows in his visits with his wife the only female appearance in the movie, as his determination to join the hunger strike wavers against the competing claims of family. These characters and more allow the story to move towards the climax. Bobby Sands' decline remains a subplot, and the gentle treatment of his leadership through O'Halloran's understated performance allows the film's focus to remain on those left behind by their martyrs, those who must endure and live.

Sudden tensions upset the dull routine, and in the film's most exciting moment, the news over the smuggled radio that Sands has been elected M.P. at first is quashed by jumping and giggling by Declan and then Seamus; as the impact of the unexpected victory sinks in, shouts erupt and spread over the compound, met by the stony stares of the guards. McPolin's hand-held camera, trapped by the confines of the cells, conveys the pressures within contained and then released.

A final note of appreciation for the decision to keep a significant amount of the dialogue in Jailic. Fascinating in its subversion of Gaelic, this invented dialect expresses the true force of the republican ideal better than the images or performances alone. For it makes the familiar elements of the prison movie that even its makers had to resort to in dramatising it for the big screen--the wide-eyed newbie, the hardened lifer vs. his weak buddy who gives in, the frustrated wife, the currency of tobacco, the heroic but doomed leader, the good cop amidst the bad cops--unfamiliar and therefore more powerful. Despite the conventional plot points and reduction of ideological battles to brief chunks of explanatory dialogue, the young actors do justice in recording a life now history. With many playing the blanketmen their twenties themselves, barely conscious at best of the real strike, the largely Northern Irish cast enables 1981 to return for a new generation of viewers. As Declan stops Seamus from ripping up his comms: 'Someday people will want to read them.' Seamus, bemused, wonders: 'so you're writing the history books, then? What ever happened to the lad from Tyrone?' Through Declan's alter ego McKeown and his comrade Campbell (who appear in cameos as prison guards!), the captive voices emerge in H3's script and image. They render in two tongues a report by 1981's survivors, adding at last to the increasingly assured language of Irish film their fluent sceal.




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Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever.
- Nadine Gordime




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