Joe Lawlor, one half of the writing/ directing partnership called Desperate Optimists with his wife Christine Lawlor, told David Hennessy about the new film Baltimore which delves into the story of Rose Dugdale, the privileged English heiress who rebelled against her upbringing and status to join the IRA.
Following its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival in November, and fresh from its Irish premiere at Dublin International Film Festival, London Breeze Festival will host an exclusive preview screening of Baltimore.
Baltimore is based on the infamous true story of the English heiress who became a revolutionary.
Amongst the political turmoil of the 1970s, her sympathy towards the IRA’s conflict evolves into radicalisation, culminating in an armed raid on an Irish estate with three comrades. However, when her simple heist turns violent, is Rose prepared to face the devastating consequences?
Directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, whose work includes Rose Plays Julie and also directed some of the recent series of KIN, and renowned stage, screen and TV actor Dermot Crowley (Luther’s DSU Martin Schenk) will be in attendance for a live Q&A.
The film tells the story of the IRA’s raid on Russborough House in Wicklow in 1974. Rose Dugdale would be arrested for her part in the raid with the paintings being recovered. Imogen Poots plays the part of Rose while Tom Vaughan- Lawlor is among the supporting cast.
What’s been the reactions to Baltimore so far? “It’s been kind of amazing,” Joe says.
“I think there’s something about the appeal of the story or the resonance of the story that perhaps gets people interested.
“I think the 60s and 70s still have a lot to teach us. We can learn a lot from them.
“I think there’s something about the idea of her which is interesting to people with the action that she took with her entire life actually, and particularly the raid.
“We get asked, did we ever meet her? We haven’t. Would we want to meet her? We wouldn’t.
“Did we ever think it would be good to talk to her? No.
“Because what happens then is that you just end up going down a biopic route, which we’re not really interested in.
“We’re more interested in the ideas about her and what she stands for, or stood for, in all its complexity.
“She’s complicated. It’s not just one thing.
“She might start off and you might be sympathetic towards her but maybe you weren’t towards the end, your position will have to change in relationship to what she did.
“But I feel it’s kind of led to some very interesting conversations.
“London (Film Festival) was an amazing reaction.
“I remember there were some people afterwards from Ireland who were very irate about us doing this material.
“One woman said we shouldn’t be doing it if we haven’t asked for her permission and we just pointed out to her The Crown hasn’t asked the queen for her permission.
“You don’t have to ask people’s permission.
“You just need to make sure you don’t defame them and if you’re just keeping to the facts, you don’t need anyone’s permission.
“But other than that, I think the reaction to it has been very, very positive.”
I’m interested in those irate reactions, where do they come from?
“I just think she’s a very divisive figure.
“The Daily Mail called it ‘a dangerous film’, that we lionise her.
“They did say we don’t glamorise her, but for them we don’t do enough to condemn her, but we don’t condemn her.
“But we don’t let lionise her either.
“I think people are looking for some position.
“It’s a little bit like Israel and Gaza at the moment, some people want to think about both sides and for some people, that’s not good enough.
“They want you to go one way or the other.
“I remember we were at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith and there was a screening-“
The screening of Blind Flight with hostages Brian Keenan and John McCarthy..
“Do you remember his (Keenan’s) comment? Because that did come up and it stayed with us: What he always thinks about in these situations is the victims.
“And there are victims on both sides.
“If you don’t think about her as a victim or think about her as a hero, you can then take a more balanced view: These are the facts, this is what she did and this is why she did it from our point of view.
“We’re not saying that that’s good or bad.
“We’re just saying, ‘This is what it is’.
“And from there, perhaps you can have a more nuanced, informed conversation rather than ‘it’s a dangerous film. You don’t condemn her enough. You don’t show any of the brutality of the Troubles in Northern Ireland’, which we do. There is that footage from Bloody Sunday and we see a dead body, we see the outcome of it, but I’m assuming they don’t want to see that side of it.
“They want to see the victims of IRA bombings.
“So they’re not happy for it to go that way but they want it to go the other way.
“But you’re showing victims nonetheless.
“The tragedy in Northern Ireland is that so many people got swept up in it.
“Rose Dugdale, from her point of view, grew up in this environment where she’s looking for some meaning and something to get behind and committed to that, which makes her very much an anomaly.”
The interesting thing with Rose is that she wasn’t born into the situation but saw the devastation of scenes like Bloody Sunday..
“That was the big trigger point for her.
“She was already looking for something and she realised when that happened, ‘Actually the thing I’m looking for is right on my doorstep so that’s what I’m going to commit myself to’.
“I’m hoping that people look at the film and don’t get sucked into a binary opposition of her, was she right, was she wrong?
“You can have those debates and they’re worthwhile debates to be having but I think it’s also good to set that within- which is what we try and do in the film- the social context of the time that people were in.”
The film shows how far Rose was willing to go in that she would have killed the farmer Donal, played by Dermot Crowley..
“He’s a composite farmer.
“Tragically, the real farmer did actually take their own life down in West Cork, such was the fear of reprisal that that person felt.
“That was very tragic, but she would have (killed him).
“At that time, she’d already carried out the attempted explosion in Strabane so she was absolutely prepared to kill.
“And according to a book that came out about a year and a half ago, was allegedly actively involved in bomb making in the 80s that led to deaths.
“That’s what she said, allegedly.
“I don’t know how true that is or not but that was quite a big confession from her.
“We don’t go into the 80s, we stop at ‘74 but even when she went to Limerick prison, she was a notoriously difficult and violent prisoner inside so she didn’t soften.
“She just got harder and harder and harder.
“There was a radio programme about her last year and it got very fiery with people calling in about her on both sides, people lionising her and other people absolutely condemning her and you can kind of buy it from both sides actually.
“Here’s a woman who was fabulously wealthy, gave all her money away to deserving causes in Tottenham. That’s quite remarkable.
“After she came out, she was very much involved in community broadcasting in Ballyfermot but she was also, apparently involved in much darker things.
“It’s very hard to remain ambivalent about her.
“We only learned about the even darker aspects of her life after we had written our script because after we’d written our script, two books came out.
“There was obviously something in the air about her and one of the books did say that the journalist interviewed her. And she confirmed that yes, she was involved in bomb making that did go on to kill people.
“So that turns her into a killer and that turns her into a different kind of a figure than what we have.
“It would become a very different film if you start to push it into that kind of activities.
“There’s always something about her which is slightly fantastical in a way.
“Her imagination’s very vivid, sometimes the execution isn’t always there.
“We didn’t have it in the film but in the raid a driver’s license was left behind in the car so there was lots of sloppiness as well.
“There was an ambition about what she wanted to do, but not necessarily the skill or professionalism.
“There’s something kind of wild about these adventures, and she did call them these spirited adventures and exciting moments in her life, particularly the dropping of the bomb on Strabane (RUC station).
“Some people might reflect upon that in different ways, but she actually talked about it as an exciting thing.
“You have to think, what kind of a person uses that kind of language to describe something like that, that could have killed people?”
There’s that moment in the film when, after the raid, the Price sisters put a statement out from their prison cells that the paintings should be returned.
That must have seemed like a betrayal to Rose who probably saw the Price sisters as contemporaries or allies..
“To her, they were the real deal.
“They were serious IRA volunteers, whereas she was somebody who was willing to show her credentials by doing these acts but they were the proper real deal.
“I don’t know if you saw that documentary about Thomas Niedermeyer and in that terrible situation there we have some very serious people much, much darker and heavier than Rose, but you can see her being inspired by them.
“And of course, Eddie Gallagher (Rose’s partner and father of the child she gave birth to in prison) also then kidnapped the following year, the Dutch industrialist businessman Tiede Herrema
and went on the run for 36 days.
“That’s almost like another film that you can easily imagine so there was something of a copycat quality to them and being inspired by the real hardcore, but nonetheless, what they did was still terrifying and frightening.
“They didn’t kill anybody up until that point. They didn’t kill Tiede Herrema whereas people in the IRA actually did callously kill him (Niedemayer), and that led to a terrible fallout for his family and children.
“I think the big takeaway is there’s victims on both sides.
“And if you don’t ever forget that, then you have always have a much more balanced view.”
You said you were convinced early on that Imogen would be right to play Rose, was it an easy sell? I bet a story like this really draws interest in..
“I think you’re right. I think the story has to kind of grab somebody otherwise,
“A story, a script comes in with a character that you find interesting or fascinating and something you know.
“Imogen’s father’s from Belfast and could talk about it.
“She had worked before in Ireland a couple of times, once in a film called Vivarium so she kind of had very positive experiences from Ireland.
“So between that, the story, her father’s connection to Northern Ireland, she just felt, ‘Yeah, I would love to play this part and feel it’s a really challenging part as well’.
“So in a way it was, it was really easy, in some respects to sell the project to her agent first and to her.
“They came on board and we had a conversation.
“It couldn’t have been easier in many respects.”
Someone else who features is Tom Vaughan- Lawlor who is still well known for playing Nidge in Love/Hate..
“Tom is incredible. We’re actually cousins.
“When we first met him he said, ‘You know we’re cousins?’
“I said, ‘I kind of know it’.
“But he’s so amazing to work with.
“Imogen wasn’t aware of him and she did her first scene with him and after the scene, she pulled us aside and she went, ‘Oh, my God. He is incredible’.
“So she was thinking, ‘Oh, I better bring my A game every time I’m in a room with this guy’.
“Because he’s just so compelling to watch and his delivery, and his ability with text.
“And he can just play things in terms of tone just so delicately and so lightly. It’s amazing to watch.
“You don’t have to say an awful lot to him.”
You say you weren’t interested in meeting Rose or anything like that but do you get any sense that she is aware of the project or had anything to say?
“No, and until we show this in Dublin, which we will do on 23 February at the Dublin Film Festival and I’m imagining by the end of March when it’s actually out on cinema screens, word will get back from somebody, maybe a staff member in the nursing home will say, ‘Oh, you know there’s a film partly based on your activities…’
“Yeah, I’d love to be in the room at that moment.
“But as I say, it’s not really about her.
“It’s about what she stands for and I think that was really the thing that we were most interested in.
“That she is a complicated woman.
“Yes, she did this but yes, she also did this and this.
“And yes, she was prepared to kill Donal but she was also willing to talk to a young boy about the the poor woman in the painting, ‘Why doesn’t she have a better life?’
“Why is it just wealthy people that have better lives?
“So you want to present somebody in all that complexity, and then you’re not doing justice to her, because that just sounds like it’s all about her, you’re trying to do justice to human beings.
“A quick, easy thing is to say that anybody involved in climate activism is a thug, but I think it’s more complicated than that.
“Nelson Mandela was outcast as a terrorist but maybe it was more complicated than that.
“And as time went by, that has been proven to be the case.
“But not everyone gets a fair hearing.
“We’re not so worried about Hitler, that’s fine. Hitler had no redeeming qualities.
“But there are certain struggles and certain peoples that we need to think about a little bit more carefully. Others we don’t, but some we do.
“So we can’t always have knee jerk reactions.
“And I do think it’s too easy to damn her and not think about other aspects and think about that story a little bit more in the social and political climate that it was in which as I say, has a lot to teach us today.
“This was a forgotten story from the 70s that I think we can learn a lot from.
“I’m old enough to remember it from when it actually was happening, because I would have been about 11.
“But I guess what I didn’t know was where she came from. I just knew that figure but what I didn’t know was this wealthy heiress who gave all her money away, who’d worked in the Department of the Treasury in the UK, and was very instrumental in developing economic policies to help developing countries manage debt and get debt relief.
“So an amazing thinker and somebody who could contribute a lot.
“But it was just the realisation that slowly this radicalization took over
“But you have to see it all as one and not separate that out.
“Because we can change as people, we can go from one thing into another.
“So it was just to learn how complex she was, was the thing that it took me I took away from it.”
The London Breeze Film Festival is holding a special preview screening of Baltimore followed by a live Q&A with writers and directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor who will also be joined by actor, Dermot Crowley.
The screening takes place at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith at 7.30pm on Wednesday 28 February.
For more information, click here.