A rarely told tale of the Occupation of Jersey during the Second World War reveals the kindness and cost of real-life heroism among ordinary islanders
A NEED AND A TIME TO BE AFRAID
THE EVENING OF Christmas Day, 1943, in a small village outside Saint Helier, and a family are having a sing-song around the hearth. Such is his sense of belonging and happiness within this warm gathering that sheltered Russian P.O.W ‘Bill’ (Julian Kostov) offers up a carol in his native tongue. And has not got further than a few lines before there is a harsh knocking on the front door. Silence falls sharply as Jenny Seagrove’s doughty widow, Louisa Gould opens up, only to be faced with German officers who demand to know what is going on. And then Louisa’s younger brother and teacher Harold (a low-key Ronan Keating still finding his acting feet) joins her at the entrance and promptly bursts into Russian song. ‘I’ll sing ‘O, Tannenbaum’ if you like,’ he tells the Germans, who exit, stage left. Everyone can breathe again.
Louisa who has lost both husband and one of her sons takes Fyodor – whom she names Bill, under her wing as if he were her own. Her compassion represents the international network of maternal hope that one’s own child in a similar situation would be looked after by another mother. (Imagine the power and change that would occur were all mothers to think like that at wartime!) But such becomes their friendship that she niaively has Bill work in plain sight in her grocery shop that happens to be the community hub, takes him on bike rides and to church, and visits the capital with him where Germans soldiers openly walk the streets. Meanwhile, her friend Arthur (John Hannah) is steaming open envelopes addressed to the Nazis’s island HQ at the local sorting office which he recognises as having been written by his own neighbours. He warns Louisa to be very careful.
Sunday Teatime Tale of Decency And Heroism
Based on the script by Jenny Lecoat, Louisa Gould’s great-niece, this wartime tale of Christian decency and ordinary heroism is clearly a story that needed to be told. As with other recent biographical films such as Sully: Miracle On The Hudson and Lion (both 2016), end-credit images add moving strength to the tale. We learn that Keating’s character, Harold Le Druillenec’s was the only British citizen to survive the Bergen-Belsen death camp, providing trial evidence. And in 2010, Louisa Gould, who was killed in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in 1945 was named as a British Hero of the Holocaust.
The trouble is that Another Mother’s Son is a script that feels that it has been padded out to fill the feature-appropriate 103 mins length. That’s not to say that it is not informative about the hardships endured: Louisa being unable to fulfill people’s grocery rations; the pressure of a small island community to live under and with the Nazis; and the despair of learning that Churchill had decided to send forces to France before liberating the Channel Islands. But director, Christopher Menual is primarily a tv series director – and it shows. The production values are that of a Sunday teatime drama – and for those of us who have never forgotten the excellent Anglia Television drama, Dame of Sark (1976) starring Celia Johnson and set under the same circumstances, then, Another Mother’s Son sadly offers no comparison.
Brave Generous Actions Speak Louder Than Wprds
The Christmas scene in the midst of Another Mother’s Son adds both metaphorical colour to the film (few decorations are visible in such hard times) and especially the coming together, openness and welcome that is should be central to the festival. And as also exemplified among the Polish POW officers in Katyn (2007), here too we are reminded that carol-singing is unifying, heartwarming, and can take us out of circumstances and remind us not only of Christmas but of home too – even for a scarred Russian young man who has lost faith in any God.
Louisa’s own belief is expressed in actions rather than words. She is brave to open her home to Fyodor, risking everything. Yet her hardiness of spirit that enables that good act is also seen as often harsh in her dealings with those with whom she disagrees. She speaks her mind and is fearless in telling a German Kommandant to his face that it is ‘none of his business whether or not her surname happens to be Jewish. This is an honest portrayal of a middle-aged Christian whose faults are wrapped up in Grace: she does the ‘right thing’ in spite of herself. (She has to be convinced to house the escaped POW.) And Jenny Seagrove’s is a gritty, unfussy performance that all but carries the entire film.
It is what happens to this family who harboured him, that effectively answers Bill’s anger at the suffering inherent to war and God’s apparent silence and absence. Their kindness, self-sacrifice and bravery during a time of undoubted terror is like that of Andrew Garfield’s field medic in Hackshaw Ridge (2016). In times of war, there are people who will make a stand for humanity. And that is what matters.