Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Mo" from 2.2.2010
This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2010
The positive critical reception of "Mo" could not have been more different to the drubbing given to "Rock and Chips." Starring the brilliant Julie Walters, it was Channel 4's highest-rated drama for eight years and "received five star reviews across the board."
The film was a dramatised version of the life of New Labour politician Mo Mowlam from the eve of the election victory in 1997 to her death in 2005. It focused initially upon coming to power and her energetic and individualistic efforts to break centuries of deadlock and bring about a negotiated political peace in Northern Ireland.
After a flying start and perhaps in reaction to her astonishing personal popularity, the bulk of the increasingly sad and bitter latter part of the story addresses Mo's battles against political in-fighting that cost her her job as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and an eventual losing struggle against cancer.
What shine out of this film and the convincing performance of Julie Walters are the remarkable personal qualities of Mo Mowlam. The piece does amount to a powerful and moving tribute, but we also see many sides of a complex character, including what might be regarded as flaws.
Julie Walter's Mo Mowlam was a force of nature with boundless energy and verve. She was dynamic and committed and went about everything with zest from politics to rounders on the beach, hard drinking or making love.
Mo lived life with panache and was outgoing and extrovert. Her lack of inhibition meant she would unselfconsciously leave a lavatory door open to be able to conduct a conversation and would continue a heated argument with her PPS inside the Gents as he stood at the urinal. Mo was no shrinking violet and did not suffer from shyness or fools gladly. Accordingly, in politics she made friends and enemies in pretty equal measure.
She was positive and idealistic with time for everyone whether they be elderly or disabled. Mo had the dynamism necessary at least to begin to break down centuries of bigotry and intransigence in Ireland. We also saw that she was incredibly physically brave in confronting sectarian prisoners in jail face to face when trying to break the early log-jam in talks.
Walter's Mo is amazingly straight talking, often using the vulgar of profane to budge those with whom she was dealing from their complacent and entrenched positions. Her shock and awe approach included flashing her knickers at an amazed and discomforted David Trimble. What effect this approach had in the longer term against such an apparently straight-laced man is not entirely clear. We do not know whether he ultimately failed to deal with her because he could never be comfortable on a personal level or because he considered that she unfairly favoured the Catholics.
Similarly, her gutsy and eccentric side is demonstrated when she removed her wig and scratched her thinning hair in front of a dumbfounded Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. This warm and engaging, earthiness seemed to have helped initially in establishing some human contact with each side and to have played a part in achieving eventual progress.
A weakness in the film is that we never seem to go any deeper into Mo's approach and technique in promoting progress in the talks. We know Mo is "Dr Mowlam" and the possessor of no mean intellect, but are left with no clear idea of the detailed mechanics of what must have been delicate and technical negotiations and her role in fostering success. We are given no detailed explanation of why and how she was periodically excluded from the process whilst still in office. There must have been something more than charming and shocking with occasional forays into the outrageous. More politics would have helped to obtain a truer picture.
Instead of gaining an understanding of how the negotiations actually worked - or didn't work, the viewer is given a strong impression of conniving by a Machiavellian Peter Mandelson to replace her. Played with a dry malevolence by Steven Mackintosh, he lurks in corridors and on staircases clutching a file and mobile phone conspiring. This leads to more than one outspoken confrontation and accusations of "trying to take my job." When Peter Mandelson has succeeded her in the province and Mo is about to be driven away her gut-wrenching sobs make it only too plain that she considers she has been manoeuvred out by a lesser man.
Alleged Mandelsonian ambition seems to be a main inference of the piece together with the desire of Tony Blair to remove her after she dared to receive a longer standing ovation than he at the first Party conference after the election.
In 1998 Mo was the darling of the party and openly called "the people's politician." It is not inconceivable that "our Mo" was perceived to constitute a potential threat and future leader.
This was stated to be the view of Mo's loyal and devoted husband Jon, played with great sensitivity by David Haig. In fairness, the case is not proven. Alternatively, did Tony Blair simply become disaffected owing to Mo's perceived failings as a politician, albeit partially due to briefings from those ill-disposed towards her? Did he feel an alternative Secretary of State simply might be better able to deliver peace?
Apart from the portrayal of a remarkable woman and a partisan view regarding bad guys in her story, "Mo" is a painful exposition on cancer itself. Anyone whose loved ones have suffered in this way knows the pain, exhaustion and anxiety resulting from the illness and its treatment.
We learn early on that Mo had been determined to conceal the gravity of her condition and had led Tony Blair to believe the tumour was benign. It was on this basis that she was given her one of the most demanding jobs in government.
In one telling scene long after Mo had left office, she met with her doctor Mark Glaser (Toby Jones). After explaining - whilst waltzing distractedly around her sitting room in her nigh dress - that she had been asked to "do this programme where they get celebrities to dance," Mo went on to what was perhaps the key question in the whole film.
She asked when her tumour might have begun to take effect. Mo wanted to know how much of her much-loved, outrageously extrovert personality was purely "her" and how much due to the cancer.
Glaser replied that the tumour could have been present as long as twenty years before the diagnosis in 1997. This meant that the disinhibition and personality changes known often to stem from such tumours could have started that long ago.
To Mo this comment must have gone to the very core of her identity. It was entirely understandable that she should want to know whether the qualities which had played such a part in her success stemmed entirely from "the real me" and were not an effect of her illness. This exchange was played with great poignancy and delicacy by Julie Walters and Toby Jones.
The question was not answered as Mo had hoped and it was perhaps only then that despair overtook her as reflected in the terrible bitterness and pain of her excoriating lamentation, "I've had everything taken from me by Blair, cancer and God. My life has meant nothing. Peace in Ireland. F***ing **it!"
So, not unlike its subject, "Mo" was brilliant and life-enhancing, but had some flaws. The film reflected the vital personal qualities that made Mo Mowlam so very special. For me its central case against Messrs Blair and Mandelson was not entirely proven and I would have liked to understand the peace process better.
Above all, I like to think that the personal qualities that enabled Mo Mowlam to make such an important contribution in Northern Ireland stemmed entirely from her and were not a by-product of her illness. Cancer took away so much from her: it should not diminish one iota of the huge credit to which she is due.