We interview husband-and-wife writer-directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor on their new thriller Baltimore, a retelling of an IRA art heist.
Baltimore tells the fascinating story of Rose Dugdale, an English heiress who rejected that life to volunteer for the IRA in the early 1970s, culminating in taking part in what was then the biggest art heist ever perpetrated. In April 1974, Dugdale and three others robbed priceless gems by European masters from Russborough House, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. Dugdale was eventually caught and imprisoned, and the paintings found and restored.
Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor bring Dugdale’s tale to the big screen in Baltimore, with Imogen Poots (The Father, Green Room) in the lead role. Their work tends to focus on the internal struggles of their protagonist, and their latest is no different. It’s at its best after the heist, as Dugdale considers the consequences of her actions for her, her accomplices and their cause. The film also features Lawlor and Molloy’s subversive streak, creating a relatively balanced portrait of a woman who may have been a thrillseeker as much as a freedom fighter.
We meet Lawlor and Molloy at the London Film Festival ahead of Baltimore’s premiere there. We discuss their hopes for the film, its origins, and what drove them to tell this remarkable woman’s story. Read our interview!
Christine Molloy & Joe Lawlor on Baltimore‘s Origins and London Premiere
Where did the idea for Baltimore come from?
Christine Molloy: It began when we were working on a documentary film [The Future Tense, which played at London Film Festival 2022]. Actually, we can take step back further than The Future Tense to the first essay film we made, which is called Further Beyond [Made in 2016, this documentary explores 18th century Irish figures, as well as the life of Lawlor’s mother]. We shot that at Russborough House, which is where the art heist took place. Further Beyond was the companion piece to The Future Tense, and we wanted to continue Joe’s mom’s story, so we went back to Further Beyond, which brought Joe back to Russborough House.
Then, it’s with that further digging around that we came across the rest of that story, which kind of rang bells for Joe from when he was growing up. I think we’d been very aware of the Cahill story associated with Russborough [Martin Cahill, a Dublin gangster, also robbed art from Russborough. He was the subject of John Boorman’s film The General], but not Rose Dugdale.
How has Baltimore been received so far?
Joe Lawlor: We had the world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival last month. We had six screenings! We were slated to do three screenings, but each one of them kept selling out, and so they kept putting on new ones, so I’d say over a thousand people came to see the film. We had lots of conversations with people, and we were surprised by that as well. Here in London, it’s a different ballgame. There’s a lot more at stake with a British audience. And then obviously, it’s different again if we’re in Ireland, because Rose Dugdale’s a very divisive figure, and obviously, there’s a lot of attitude about the UK. So I could imagine it being a little bit more of a frisson bringing it here.
Christine Molloy & Joe Lawlor on Rose Dugdale and Casting Imogen Poots
What makes Rose Dugdale’s story one worth telling?
Christine Molloy: She’s this historical figure, like Ambrosio Higgins, who featured in Further Beyond, whose story really was forgotten. Yet, it’s a fascinating story. Somehow, a decision was made to make a film about Martin Cahill, the General, and to ignore Rose’s story, though she was behind the first art heist to happen at Russborough. In fact, as a result of that heist, Russborough went from being entirely a family home to being broken up into sections. They set up the museum to become a public space, and then the family lived in a smaller part of the house.
She orchestrated that raid on a family home, but now it’s just a couple living there: it is their house, and it’s a tough thing to do to raid somebody’s home. Cahill has an easy job! Rose and the IRA raided the home that people were living in, but with staff as well, so about 14 people were caught up in the raid, and it was vile and nasty, and very disturbing and traumatising for all the people that got caught up in it. It’s a much bigger thing to do to go into some time with that they’re living their lives: they crossed that threshold.
It’s one of those things you couldn’t make it up; this English heiress, who turned her back on her life in England to join the cause of the IRA, who orchestrated this raid for this higher cause. But she also had her own kind of personal agendas. We believe there was a need also to be at the heart of the action, and to go rogue and look for attention, and to be accepted by the IRA. But there were lots of different things going on, which makes her a bag of interesting contradictions.
Joe Lawlor: We’re also asking people to imagine that she didn’t just do this out of the blue, but that she arrived at this over a long period of time: she found it, and it went over the top at some point along the way. This was the foundation on which Baltimore was built, and for me was completely right. It’s completely solid: it’s just how far you take things.
It’s a little bit like protesters today. Yeah, you might support them, but some people might think that it becomes unacceptable at a certain point. It can be a flexible red line for some people. That idea of militancy was important for us, but it was a militancy that was arrived at in a logical process. No matter what we do, there will be people who will not want to see this one way or the other, because it’s seen as humanising somebody. Not to draw a direct connection between her and Nelson Mandela, but for a long period of time in this country, as far as the press and politicians were concerned, he was a terrorist. There was no engagement with the ANC in their political aspirations.
How did you arrive at Imogen Poots to play Rose?
J.L.: It’s always a bit of a worry, because you might develop a script over the course of a few years, and you have an idea of what this person might be like. By all accounts, when she was younger or an undergraduate, Rose Dugdale was incredibly charming, the kind of person that everybody wanted to hang out with. She was a lot of fun, had lots of energy, very charismatic. So, you kind of want somebody who’s not really dark, one-dimensional, brooding. You wanted somebody that you could imagine being incredibly violent, clear, charming, light yet heavy. That’s a really hard thing, embodied in one person. We’d known about Imogen and her work, and Vivarium in particular.
There’s something about her: she’s incredible to hang out with and watch. There’s something very charming and charismatic about this person, and also very punk, in a way. So, you begin to look at the person on screen, but of course you’ve got to imagine what they’d be like playing this role, and you really don’t know that until you have a conversation with her. She clearly had that strong attitude about this part. Then on day one, when the cameras turning over, you’re still not sure you’ve committed at this point.
There’s always a leap of faith, or an act of imagination, and a great level of trust that flows both ways. She needs to trust us, that we believe in her, but it was so clear within seconds of a camera turning over that she was so ripe for this. I think we knew this anyway going in. But it’s an important thing to get right, because what we’re not trying to do is to hero worship, nor do we want to do the opposite of that. We’re trying to wrest a person from a complex troubled history, and place them in a holding pattern for the 90 minutes the film was one, and ask people just to allow it to levitate in between these two extremes. We know in Ireland she’s a very divisive character; there are people who go one way or the other with her.
Rose Dugdale as a Radical and the Potential for Controversy
What do you think Rose’s story has to teach or say to audiences today?
Christine Molloy: I think the other interesting thing about Rose is that she was a woman. She operated in a principled way, against a world that she knew intimately from the inside. She was anti-imperialism. She was anti-colonialism. She was against excessive wealth, particularly ill-gotten wealth on the back of colonialism. She was very vocal about that; she was a Marxist, and she was so principled and opinionated and, unlike many people, she put her money where her mouth is. In that respect, you can really see parallels between her and people who are really willing to put their head above the parapet today, in this toxic culture that we live in around loads of different issues.
She wanted to go all the way; she literally detached herself from the family. She didn’t hate her parents. She might have hated what they stood for, and placed herself in a position where she was never going to see them again, or be able to go back to England, and cut herself off a life that for most people would seem very desirable. She thought, “If I stay here in this world, I’ll be forced into miserable marriage, and be expected to be a good, awkward, privileged wife and have kids end of story.” She didn’t want this, but she also wanted to find a place. She chose Ireland, she chose the cause of the IRA, the desire for United Ireland and made that her cause, and has never wavered, despite everything. That part is very admirable, even if along the way you really question some of her motivations and some of her strategies.
Was the potential for controversy about Rose as a terrorist a hindrance to securing funding?
J.L.: There were no difficulties getting funds for this story, other than the usual difficulties you have to get financing now for any film. Any kind of controversy about it never came up. In some respects, you might see it as positive, insofar as if there was a controversial or divisive figure, somebody might think that might be a positive thing, a selling point.
C.M.: There was far less controversy once we dipped into her story. If the attack on the RUC station in Strabane had been successful, we would be talking about her in a very different way. She did hijack a helicopter, a bad thing to do. She put bombs into milk churns, and they tried to blow the station up. But it was unsuccessful because it was amateur night. Yet, she describes the it as the most exciting moment in her life. The one thing that she did very successfully was rob these paintings, but that’s not the same as dropping bombs on a police station and possibly killing innocent bystanders, etc. So, the thing she did really well, she didn’t follow through on, because they didn’t really have a plan. The plan was ridiculous, and what were they gonna do then? The two big things that she did, in a way, were very amateur, very impassioned, not professional and thought through in a way that they should have. She’s a kind of a novelty.
I think that’s why she’s controversial: she admitted to bomb-making, and she did something terrible in prison – threw scalding water over a prison warden and disfigured them. But when she came out of prison, she got into the publishing wing of Sinn Fein, and kind of moved away from the IRA. She became much more involved in teaching, and local stuff like anti-drugs campaigns. You might think that that’s controversial, but other people might not think that’s controversial at all, but things that needed to be done. Even if her method is sometimes a little bit questionable. we’re in a position to look back on the Troubles.
Ultimately, she was a big supporter of the Good Friday Agreement. We will make villains of some people, and heroes of others, and that will be different for the next person you talk to. I think she is now much more controversial because of this, and maybe this bomb thing is not true. Because she’s older, she has a history of looking for attention. Maybe she is annoyed with how the stupid things she did failed. She can now rewrite history a little bit and say, “I actually followed through exactly the way I wanted to, which was to be involved.” We don’t know; all we can do is speculate.
What’s Next for Christine Molloy & Joe Lawlor and for Ireland
Do you see changes in Ireland since you left?
Joe Lawlor: I remember working in a factory in Finglas [a working class Dublin suburb], where we’re from, for two years, thinking “I finished school. This sucks, but there’s no way out, and I have to do it every day.” I did it for 20 months. It was long enough, but it was scary enough to make me think, “I gotta get out,” because nobody’s been helped.
I mean, my parents weren’t helping me. Nobody went to university, there was one bloke in our secondary school that went to university. You need to get your plans together, because no one’s helping you, except maybe some creepy priest from the De La Salle Brothers that you talked to about career guidance.
In terms of the country, we have moved on in Ireland since we’ve left, which was a surprise, but also took a lot of pleasure in seeing how the country is evolving. But equally, the same pain of young people trying to leave is still there, to some degree, there’s still a lot of emigration.
Christine Molloy: The Celtic Tiger [Ireland’s economic boom in the late ‘90s and early 2000s] changed people. There’s the disappointment that the Irish have people come to their country, and they haven’t been welcoming. The racism on display now! Christ, it’s disappointing.
What comes next for you? Another project?
J.L.: We have no idea what’s happening with us, from one day to the next! 40 years ago, or when we first moved to the UK, we had no idea that we’d be here today, or making a film like this, or even making films. We were all about making theatre those days. So it’s evolving, but there’s no grand plan, other than to be involved in something that you’re interested in.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Baltimore was screened at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival on 6-9 October. Read our review of Baltimore and our list of 25 movies to watch at the 2023 London Film Festival!