Okay, this one’s a bit tough to write. This is the story of a mother on wartime, German-occupied Jersey. It is a rather more fateful, less filmic companion to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018). It is also true. Jenny Seagrove plays Louisa Gould, who receives a report of the death of her son, and takes in an escaped Russian slave in an act of mother love. The Germans used slaves to construct armaments, sea walls and an underground hospital. Their treatment was vicious, murderous and cruel. So Louisa took in a runaway, honouring her grief and decency through Another Mother’s Son.
Which is all very romantic, but its basis is reality. And it is difficult for old Jack here to review because my cousins were on the island during the war. They took forty years to talk about it, fifty to celebrate survival, and the best part of seventy to let out the anger at Churchill for abandoning them, the occupiers for bludgeoning their lives, murdering their friends and triggering their starvation and, in an energetic balance to the early stories of collaboration, remind a world that had forests to hide in, fewer armaments in their faces, fewer Germans per head, and actual food to eat, that their resistance came with an inevitability of concentration camps or sudden death.
So, if you’ll pardon, my cousins have made the point that these are not our emotions to feel. Rather, it is our history to recognise and learn from. Which made me nervous about Another Mother’s Son, which took advice from those who were there, but is told by people who were not.
The majority of the film – once characters have stopped explaining the occupation to one another – is about Seagrove’s Louisa, her angst and the risks she takes. She runs a shop and has to serve Germans, maintain supplies, serve ‘jerrybags’ (women who took their pleasures with the Germans), and take on Julian Kostov as Feodor or… “Bill”. Hugely dangerous and, to be clear, the occupation went on for years.
Louisa is a good person doing a decent thing, but her family and friends reveal the horror of it all. John Hannah, as Arthur, works in the Post Office and sees the letters betraying people across the island, sent by other islanders from spite and desperation. And two mean looking old sisters frequent her shop… Amanda Abbington, as Louisa’s sister Ivy, gives off worry and emotion where Seagrove is harder to reach. And Ronan Keating (really, the pop person) plays their brother in a similarly detached, nervous way – with a bit of life-saving singing.
Louisa likes the boy she takes in, teaches him bits of English, then gets him working in the shop. There’s a madness in prisons without bars, I don’t doubt, and her confidence leads to the needless drama of taking the boy out and about and – deep breath – interacting with a German officer. Characters warm to one another, Bill gets some flirting in, and the ticking clock of steamed letters keeps going. And then the story pitches into inevitable tragedy with liberation in sight…
My cousins knew of the family, Jenny Lecoat, the writer, is directly related, so old Jack here is wary of commenting on some of Louisa’s decisions as presented here. For me, I have watched that generation – my fellows – grow into owning the story. Another Mother’s Son, whilst true, may be a little too true, for that madness puts everything at risk and costs the characters – these real people – a hell of a lot.
So. Difficult, educational, worrying, emotional, pointed, and, alas, not peopled with the most accessible of acting, Another Mother’s Son is a film to watch with an observer’s eye. You are learning history, not feeling the feelings to which only those who were there are entitled.
One last thought, for those reflecting on the mid-life powers of parenthood, mother-love is a thing that can get you killed.