Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Maeve is available to rent on BFI Player and on disc via the BFI Shop

Maeve captures not just a particularly bleak time in Northern Ireland’s recent past, but also a passing moment of radical possibility in cinema. A film about the individual’s relationship to the flow of history, Maeve is itself a historical milestone: generally accepted as Ireland’s first feminist feature, it was also the first film to be cast and shot in Belfast (no mean feat while the Troubles were raging).

In 1981 Northern Ireland still featured regularly in broadcast news as paramilitary violence and sectarian killings dragged on and on, while occasional TV plays about the province mostly evaded the jeopardy of actually shooting there.

It was remarkable, then, that writer-director Pat Murphy (who was born in Dublin in 1951, and had lived in Belfast 1967-72) travelled there with editor John Davies and cameraman Robert Smith, her fellow graduates from the Royal College of Art film programme, and worked with local actors and theatre groups to create this BFI-backed jointly authored feature, shot for less than £100,000. Even more extraordinary was the outcome: instead of a conventional Loachian social-realist affair, they delivered a formally challenging, politically abrasive piece.

Maeve is defiant in its stylistic embrace of Brechtian alienation and Godardian film grammar, as well as its thematic rejection of Republican orthodoxy for sidelining women within the freedom struggle. In hindsight, it looks like a landmark Irish film and a canonical example of European celluloid modernism, but it was perhaps too contrarian to generate much critical or audience support; this newly transferred BFI Blu-ray release is hugely welcome for restoring it to circulation.

Just don’t expect the film to make things too easy for viewers more used to emotional engagement and straightforward storytelling. Deliberately paced and at times ungainly, it is broadly speaking a rites-of-passage film, though in the context of 1980s working-class Belfast the familiar storyline about an intellectually curious small-town girl shipping over to art college in London to find her own freedom becomes much more loaded – is her departure an act of self-serving egotism betraying the sufferings of loved ones and the Republican struggle? Murphy’s film doesn’t necessarily set out to have us rooting for Mary Jackson’s protagonist; rather, offers a cerebral overview, laying out her experiences across three different time periods so that we can fit the pieces together and assess what they represent.

Maeve (1981)

The choice not to label the film’s flashbacks to childhood and schooldays – presenting them unadorned, so that they have the same weight as Maeve’s present-day return from London – certainly leaves the viewer with a bit of sorting out to do. What’s significant, however, is that in eschewing linear narrative tropes the film underscores its courageous rejection of a linear reading of political history. Maeve’s boyfriend Liam (mutton-chopped John Keegan) gives a spirited defence of confronting past centuries of colonialism to legitimise the current armed struggle, but Maeve insists that without a key part for women in the movement, they’re left as an oppressed party within Republicanism – seen as mere possessions, just as England regards Ireland.

These ideological exchanges, densely argued on both sides – and incendiary stuff within the besieged state of Republicanism at the time – embrace the declamatory mode of late 60s Godard rather than the character portraiture of standard film dialogue. But this is just part of the film’s barrage of distancing techniques: elsewhere, poetry intrudes, the fourth wall is broken and the same actor disorientingly turns up in a series of toxic masculine roles.

It’s a deeply thought-out piece of filmmaking, and one that can be made to sound too forbidding. While it carefully registers the unease of some menfolk browbeaten by the demands of armed resistance, the key takeaway is the powerful manner in which the film’s feminist argument emerges from what we can see of grimy, ravaged, paranoid Belfast, showing how her girlhood years of anxiety have prompted Maeve to look further afield.

Having grown up in another part of town at the time, I can attest to how vividly the assured 16mm images in this fresh 2k transfer convey the gnawing tension of everyday violence, ever-present armed police and soldiers and frequent body searches at city security barriers. More specifically, Murphy’s precise framing points up the intensified sexual vulnerability of women under this blanketing oppression, highlighting telling small-scale moments of feminine resistance from Maeve’s spirited sister (Brid Brennan, later an icon of Irish acting) and their downtrodden mother (Trudy Kelly), which complement her own profound expressions of rebellious self-definition; the doughty yet tender Jackson is herself an intriguing screen presence.

Murphy’s subsequent features, Anne Devlin (1984) and Nora (2000), used historical drama to examine some of the same ideas: she certainly earns her place alongside the likes of Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan in the useful Century of Cinema documentary on Irish film that is included as an extra on the disc. Maeve remains a unique, irreplaceable time capsule, whose impassioned, intelligent response to a troubled era that affected both personal and political spheres still burns with a cool, ardent flame of inspiration.

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

Find out more and get a copy