By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated January 17, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST

Admirably high-minded and depressing as hell, SOME MOTHER’S SON (Castle Rock, R) is another go at explicating their country’s troubled recent history by Irish filmmakers Terry George and Jim Sheridan, the duo who wrote In the Name of the Father. In that 1993 film, directed by Sheridan, the pair filtered arguments for and against Irish Republican Army sympathies through the relationship between an estranged father and son whose personal differences fall away as they unite in a shared political struggle. In this take, the miserably entrenched sides are represented by the bond between a loving mother (Helen Mirren) and son (Aidan Gillen) whose political differences fall away in the face of personal crisis, and George directs, in his feature film debut. Both plots are inspired by real people — here, the 21 men, jailed for IRA-directed terrorism, who went on a hunger strike in 1981 to demand recognition as political rather than criminal prisoners. Ten died before a compromise was reached.

By cannily angling the story as a Mother’s Issue — should Kathleen Quigley (Mirren), a pacifist schoolteacher, support her son in his desire to die for his cause, or should she intervene to end his fast? — Sheridan and George effectively make their dramatic points. (Kathleen is framed in distinct if simple contrast to outspoken IRA supporter Annie Higgins — played fiercely by the wonderful, under-recognized Irish stage actress Fionnula Flanagan — who backs her son’s terrorist activities to the terrible hilt.) Mirren throws her usual brisk intelligence into the task, creating an interesting, independent-minded woman. The story is sturdy.

But some pitch of urgency in Some Mother’s Son is never reached, and this is only partly because George runs his show at a lower decibel level than that of Sheridan. (Mother’s is appropriately female-scaled, employing contained, motherly gestures, e.g., vigils, just as Father rages on a male scale, e.g., prison riots.) But partly, too, the film induces an ailment Irish filmmakers (including Michael Collins’ Neil Jordan) need to guard against these days: passion fatigue, in which a bummed-out American audience is exhausted, ironically, by the director’s political intensity. Following Father and coming on the heels of Collins, this latest variation on a theme of tragic political headbanging may be one dirge too many for all but the most motivated of history students. B