Nothing Personal

By James Leahy and Marc Karlin

d. Thaddeus O’Sullivan
Pandora Film/Channel 4 Films
UK/Ireland/Sweden, 1996, 100 mins.

By James Leahy

Nothing Personal offers a new dimension in the portrayal of Northern Irish Unionism. In-stead of the theatrically public display of bowler-hatted marchers on the street banging big drums and waving Union Jacks, we are exposed to the sound, feel and texture of the streets, bars and clubs, a culture we are seldom shown. O’Sullivan comments: “People who live on the streets always say: ‘They never get our experiences across.’ It’s always struck me that the victims are the innocent people. Ordinary people are the ones who suffer most, and they’re the ones who are forgotten first...”

There’s an image early on which clearly articulates this emotional and thematic stance. The setting, a Protestant bar, has been established by a title. A group of RUC men leave the bar, not all together. A tension is established through the staging... A sense that something is about to happen, probably a bomb going off. It is clear even to those who have read nothing about the content of the film. There are shots of activity in the bar, continuing as normal. Most striking is the image of a girl’s legs, eye-catching, vulnerable. No big-budget indulgence in special effects and make-up could better evoke what a bomb explosion is likely to mean. As Thaddeus O’Sullivan says: ‘It’s the legs that usually go first. ‘The shot is all the more potent because it shows what is still there, but apparently about to be destroyed: the girl can still join in and dance, but will she be able to after the explosion? The violence is personalised. The effects of violence are always personal, at least from the point of the victims, even if, as Protestant paramilitary leader Kenny tells his Catholic childhood friend Liam (John Lynch) the perpetrators of violence intend ‘Nothing Personal’.

Sight & Sound reviewer Trevor Johnston sees this sequence differently. He argues, quite correctly, that its impact is crucial in determining how one responds to the events of the film as a whole. The violence depicted subsequently is that of a Protestant paramilitary gang. Unless the reality and effects of IRA violence are established by the initial sequence, the balance of the film is tipped against the Protestants. For Johnston, the sequence fails. The shots of the explosion (a library shot) and its consequences do not, for him, have the impact of contemporary television news coverage.

This, he suggests, is probably the result of budgetary limitations rather than the intentions of the filmmakers. Nevertheless this failure, he argues, does not account for the changes of sectarianism that have been levelled against the film. For this writer, however, the sequence succeeds, for the reasons outlined above. Indeed, it probably works better than any sequence of the kind Johnston seems to be calling for. Here, different responses to details of filmic styles and aesthetic organisations have clearly generated opposing responses to themes and morality of the film. O’Sullivan’s response to Johnston’s argument is simple and straightforward: ‘If I’d had more money, I’d’ve done exactly the same shot, only better.’

About the charges of sectarianism, levelled, for example, by Alexander Walker when Michael D. Higgins visited the NFT (see Vertigo 5) he is equally clear: “Alexander Walker wants to see a more balanced film. I think he means that it’s only OK to criticising loyalist killers if at the same time I’m criticising the IRA He assumes that, since I come from the South, I must see his world (Ulster Loyalism) from a strictly Republican point of view, and conveniently ignores the fact that the writer is a Protestant from Belfast. Because Mr. Walker so casually overlooks the anti-violent thrust of the film I find it hard to take his objections seriously. I would say that he views the film from a strictly Loyalist point of view, not as a film critic. And I think his views ignore the experience of the people who have lived with this horror for 25 years. He’s a voice from the past... the bowler hats and the ‘B’ Specials. When I was in Belfast recently, publicising the film, the Loyalists I met understood the film perfectly, whether they agreed with it or not. While I was there, a campaign was got up by some minister... and I got some letters from people who evidently had not seen the film, dismissing it. Then one of them wrote back to me and said: I’ve now seen the film, and apologise for what I said. It’s obviously an anti-violent film, and I’d only seen clips on television’. O’Sullivan concludes: ‘The film is about how violence corrodes a community. In that sense, the film would have been just the same had I made it about the Provos.’

One could make one further point in rebuttal of the charges of sectarianism: the narrative of the film clearly argues that violence begets violence. It is Michael (Gareth O’Hare), a Catholic boy who has been eager to take up the gun, who is accidentally responsible for the death of another Catholic, Liam’s young teenage daughter Kathleen (Jenny Courtney). The film’s emotional identification is clearly with those who suffer from violence: Liam, Kathleen and Kenny’s wife Ann (Maria Doyle Kennedy).

O'Sullivan dismisses the Protestant violence of the 70’s as ‘completely useless’, damaging to their cause. Thus, Kenny’s effective suicide at the end of the film is presented as the only way out for this character. O’Sullivan agrees that the current behaviour of the Protestant paramilitaries is much more likely to generate a positive image, and thus the results they are seeking: ‘If you go into the bars in the Shankhill, they really give it to you. They’ve all got that intensity. There isn’t in that an implied anti-Catholic thing at all... But there is a passion for how they feel. I always thought that, if that intensity was focused in the right way, and there was a bit of liberal politics, you know, and a bit of commonsense, a leader would emerge. That’s why the Protestant community that is depicted in the bar is so important to me. There is a sense that these people support the principles, but they’re nice, ordinary people, and you don’t really believe that they would support what Kenny does in their name, or condone the acts of the sectarian killers among them.’

Nevertheless, he admits this intensity is likely to be intimidating to members of the minority community in Northern Ireland: ‘Yeah... It is intimidating when you’re in its company, you know. When you’re sitting with them, drinking. But at the same time... They’re very, very anxious that you understand what it is that they feel, and they don’t believe that they ever will... There has always been a sense of feeling embattled. But at the same time, once they’ve got that over, they are incredibly friendly, and passionate about being friendly, and about welcoming you, and all of that. They have the capacity to walk away from it, the sectarianism, the old prejudices, in the search for something new. But they need leaders with courage...a new outlook.’

Whilst it’s true that a near psychopath like Ginger (Ian Hart, best supporting actor at the Venice Film Festival for this role) is fighting for a time when Catholics: ‘Get down on their knees and crawl across the fucking border’. The man in overall command of Kenny’s group Leonard (Michael Gambon) looks upon him as a ‘nauseating wee shite’ who can be ‘put to sleep’ when the truce comes.

Amongst the ties that bind the Loyalists to the Union is the blood shed in the two world wars, and O’Sullivan uses the song ‘Billy McFadzean’, a kind of Protestant equivalent to ‘Danny Boy’, about a young soldier killed on the Somme, to establish the continuing emotional; potency of this history: ‘People from the South fought on the Somme as well, but a lot more Ulstermen went and died. And it’s the sort of song they sing in the clubs. When the paramilitaries defend the Union now, they sometimes invoke the spirit of this earlier Loyalism.’

The scene of the negotiations between the Protestants and Republican paramilitary leaders, Leonard and Cecil (Gerard McSorley), on policing the community and arrange a ceasefire, left this writer speculating about possible comparable encounters going on to keep violence off the streets of Derry over the weekend of this 10-12 August. About such encounters in the 70s O’Sullivan comments: ‘Anybody who finds that alliance a bit unreal is fantasising,’

These scenes make it clear how much the two communities share. O’Sullivan chuckles: ‘They do have a strong sense of community spirit. Which is why Kenny’s gang knee-cap this guy who’s been causing trouble in the Catholic streets, flashing or something like that. It’s the same on the Nationalists side as well’. In such a context, rape, for example, seems unlikely ever to be used as a weapon of war, as it has been in former Yugoslavia. There are still certain boundaries to the conflict.

Liam and Kenny were once friends, as were their fathers. It is only by chance that it is Ann who spots Liam, struggling home after a beating, and tends his wounds. O’Sullivan comments: ‘I resolutely stuck to the idea of a stage, which was very strictly delineated. That helped me to say: ‘these are the people that the violence is visited upon... And it is a very small community to see what’s going on outside. I thought that, if I structured the film in this way, in terms of design and narrative, any coincidence would be less self-conscious. The coincidences that exist are much more extraordinary that the ones I’ve shown here, but that’s never a totally satisfactory comment... It’s how you present them, I guess,’

Of course, there has been ‘ethnic cleansing’ as the territories of the two religious groups have become more rigorously defined, with people of both religions moving out of areas where they were once comfortable. It is interesting to realise, however, that many such enclaves, where one community was surrounded by another, were cleared on the late 60s (the time of the early manifestations of the Catholic Civil Rights movement) to make way for now partially completed ring road and motorway schemes. Now, the sensible route for someone wanting to visit co-religionists in a not-too-distant area, is to go into the centre of the city, then come out again.

At the end of the film, the Protestant Ann and the catholic Liam cross the cemetery from the gravesides of her dead husband Kenny, and his dead daughter Kathleen, to offer each other condolences. The moment is as intense as the comparable scene in The Third Man, generating a longing for a hopeful resolution. Not, certainly, a conventional happy ending, but some sense that such individual human contacts and sympathy might one day become the two communities. However, the presence of the representatives of these two communities lined up at the respective gravesides emphasises how forlorn such a hope still seems.

The RUC is effectively absent from the film, whilst the British soldiers come across as exactly what they are, another gang, this time of aliens. O’Sullivan admits: ‘It is a bit unreal that the RUC and the army are so little in evidence. The army appears at the end, and kills the paramilitaries. Other than that, the only manifestation of the army is the Saracen going backwards and forwards through the streets all night. In a way, the soldiers are the ones who are in charge of their destiny, but they’ve nothing to do with what’s going on. They know nothing, and I don’t think you’re under any illusion that they might understand what they’re doing. I wanted to keep them like that, locked away in their little Saracens, driving around all night, looking through a hole in a piece of armour plate. I think that’s the level of their understanding. I didn’t even show soldiers at the funeral, where they would have been. In fact, we had them called on the day, and I didn’t use them. The only way I could stay true to this really simple thing I wanted to say was to pare it down. I wanted again to ensure you didn’t get distracted by other possible stories. The reason why I made the film the way I did was because it was the only way I could express my feelings about the place, about the people, and not just rehash some ideology.’

Nothing Personal is a Little Bird production for Channel 4, with the participation of British Screen and the Irish Film Board/Bord Scannán Na hÉireann. It has already been released simultaneously in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, where, interestingly, it enjoyed a greater success, being highly praised, and reaching No.1 at the box office. It opens in London on October 18, and will be seen across the country the following month. It is a beautifully crafted and acted film, a product of the independent sector at its best. It speaks for those whose voices are not usually heard with passion and integrity. It should not be missed.


Whilst revising this article, I started to wonder if the balance of our discussion hadn’t been allowed to tilt a bit too much in favour of the Protestants. I put this to Thaddeus O’Sullivan in the following terms:

‘Though I accept that the passion and intensity you describe may have no anti-Catholic intention, in the context of what was designed to be ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’, it is inevitable that this passion if often perceived as anti-Catholic, particularly when the history of that state was a history of gerrymandering, intimidation, violence and the threat of violence, with the RUC sometimes taking the lead, and most of the nice, ordinary people going along without protest”.

He replied: ‘That state and that history are what we all know about Ulster Protestantism. I wanted to go beyond that, to show the reality and potential of the people in the bars and the streets. It seems to me they have much more to offer than their political leaders. It’s the latter we see and hear all the time, not the people whose views they’re supposed to be representing.’

Nothing Personal

Marc Karlin adds:

Nothing Personal is a naturalistic film. Yet because it is set in a world so seldom represented on the screen, and outside the range of experience of so many viewers, it tests the very limits of naturalism. There’s no template, no common language of representation, against which to test its authenticity and its truthfulness. It is a measure of the achievement of Thaddeus O’Sullivan and screenwriter Daniel Mornin (on whose novel All Our Fault the film is based) that, when we stumble out of the cinema, we’re not blinded by the light outside, but remain focussed on the illuminations we have perceived in the last hour and a half.

The exchange of condolences in the cemetery, between Catholic Liam and Protestant Ann, is the true test of the film. After 90 minutes of almost unendurable naturalism, so powerful and brutal that we feel drained physically, as if we had been numbered among the victims of this violence, can an ending that some might dismiss as mawkishly sentimental, lying even, actually work?

Yes... Partly as a result of the low-key acting and staging. More because we desire change as much as Liam and Ann. We want the violence we have endured throughout the film to cease, and for a political situation we have come to regard an immutable to change, and change for ever.

Endings are often a let down – a sort of sheltered housing for timid imaginations. This ending releases a time and a space for our acute longings. Hard-bitten though we may be about hope in politics, and misers though we are with our time and attention, we allow it to stay with us indefinitely.

Realism, and its ever-hopeful stepchild naturalism, are difficult to bring off now in cinema. The need for artifice, whether in the form of special effects, sensational stories, or both, makes it difficult for terrestrial stories to survive. Thaddeus O’Sullivan and Daniel Mornin have brought us down to earth, and made us feel at ease with our fellow Martians.