In previous years, in the lead up to St. Patrick's Day, I have occasionally reviewed a movie with an Irish aspect to it. Such is the case again this year, with a masterful film from the 1990s that has a darker theme.
“You’re not looking me in the eye when you’re speaking to me. You see, I know how to look at people without blinking as well. In all my god forsaken life I have never known what it was like to want to kill somebody until now. You’re a brave man, Joe. A brave man.” ~ Gerry Conlon
“Next time you see Belfast, they’ll be flying day trips to the moon.” ~ Detective
“Well, I think they should take the word compassion out of the English dictionary.” ~ Gareth Peirce
“Don’t you be comforting me when I can see the truth staring me in the face. I’m scared I’m gonna die in here.” ~ Giuseppe Conlon
“I’m a free man, and I’m going out the front door.” ~ Gerry Conlon
In 1993, director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, The Field, The Boxer) brought a biographical courtroom drama to the big screen, telling the story of a grave injustice, of the relationship of a father and son, and of a man finding himself after a wrongful conviction and incarceration. The film, In The Name Of The Father, is based on the case of the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven out of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, people wrongfully sent to prison over terrorist acts. While it does dramatize aspects of the story, the film itself tells a powerful tale of redemption and personal growth, and boasts great performances by its three leading actors. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, in a year with Schindler’s List as competition, the movie is a masterpiece of acting.
The film opens with a bang in 1974, with a pub blown up one evening in Guildford, causing the deaths of five people and injuries to many others. We meet Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis), a Belfast youth and petty criminal, content to strip lead from roofs, drink and get high, and occasionally get involved in riots against the occupying British security forces. His father Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite), a peaceful man who can’t seem to reach his rebellious, careless son, intervenes when the IRA is annoyed with Gerry, and dispatches his son to stay in London with his aunt, for Gerry’s own safety.
Gerry instead falls in with a friend, Paul Hill (John Lynch), and the two explore hippie life among other like minded people, content to be petty criminals. One night, Gerry steals money from a prostitute’s apartment, chats with a man in a park, and that night the bomb goes off. It’s not long after that he stands accused of the bombing, along with Paul and two others. Giuseppe is caught up in arrests afterwards as one of several accused supporters, and the two find themselves wrongfully convicted, incarcerated for long terms in a British prison, with seemingly no hope of clearing their names.
Sheridan not only directed the movie, but co-wrote the screenplay with Terry George. It’s based on Gerry Conlon’s book, Proved Innocent, though there are dramatic licenses taken and fictional aspects to the film. The Conlons were not incarcerated in the same cell, and in fact were mostly in separate prisons. The legal process as we see it in the film is different from the events that led to the exoneration of all parties- the real process was a good deal more complicated. And yet the film’s story captures the sense of injustice of the case in a stark way- from the use of torture and intimidation in the interrogation scenes to seeing these characters robbed of years of their lives for something they had no part in. The story strongly emphasizes the notion of a son really getting to know his father, of getting past the endless friction between them. It’s a personal growth story as well, as a careless youth, spending fifteen years behind bars, matures and becomes invested in the idea of justice, and righting a terrible wrong.
The film feels quite claustrophobic, even before we find ourselves in prison. The atmosphere of the mid-seventies Belfast, with its seething tension, violence, and stark mood, is well captured by the director in early sequences, rendering the place a warren of dark streets and narrow passages. That transfers well over to the prison sequences, where life in jail is rendered in the inhuman, hard way you’d expect. Some guards are more sympathetic to others, particularly to the increasingly frail Giuseppe, who, while becoming ever more unhealthy physically, shows a quiet inner strength of character that his son comes to see. Violence of prison life is not overlooked either- rioting or an attack on a guard is depicted in a harsh way, as is the hard attitude of an IRA man who knows full well that the Conlons are innocent. Even the final act of the film, set inside a court, has a somewhat claustrophobic air, filled with tension as things go along.
Emma Thompson appears in the film as Gareth Peirce, the lawyer who works to overturn the convictions. She is sympathetic and idealistic in her approach, particularly with Giuseppe, and then with Gerry. Her first encounters with Gerry find him bitter and cynical, loathing the very idea of the justice system, and yet her words do get through to him. Much of the film is told through the framing of recorded remarks Gerry makes to her, telling her his story. The character’s integrity and determination comes through very clearly in Thompson’s performance- this is a person of inherent decency who sees an injustice and seeks to make it right. It’s a role that scored her a Best Supporting Actress nomination that year at the Oscars.
The film also scored a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Pete Postlethwaite, and really exposed him to North American audiences. His role as Giuseppe is a revelation to watch on screen. The peaceful father who’s frustrated with the carelessness and disregard of his son might be easily underestimated when we first see him, but there’s strength and resolve beneath all that. Giuseppe is a man who can talk the IRA out of punishing his son, and when he finds himself in prison, wrongfully convicted and fearing he won’t come out alive (an accurate fear), we begin to see the quiet personal strength that more than compensates for his increasing ill health. Gerry starts to see that too, getting to know his father and respect him for the first time in his life. It’s a marvel to watch these two actors interact on screen, to see Giuseppe’s hopes and fears, the way he copes with the injustice he’s living in, and Postlethwaite conveys that resolve of the man perfectly through his performance. You have these two magnificent actors together, one conveying quiet wisdom, the other a fierce sense of will, and it's a pleasure to watch.
Daniel Day-Lewis was also nominated for his work here as Best Actor, and well deserved. I would argue that this was the best performance by any actor that year (the Academy disagreed and gave the Oscar that year to Tom Hanks for Philadelphia). Day-Lewis has a history of really preparing for a role; in this case he lost weight he didn’t need to, spent three days and nights in a jail cell, was prevented from sleeping during that time by bangs on the door every ten minutes, and was interrogated by actual Special Branch officers. Apparently he also insisted crew members verbally abuse him on set. The result is astonishing to see- his Gerry Conlon goes from a careless, thoughtless, selfish, cynical youth on a path to self destruction, gets subjected to injustice, and comes alive in a fierce way, devoting himself to making a terrible wrong right again. It is character growth in a way that’s mesmerizing to watch on screen as Gerry matures, and it makes for a compelling performance. Day-Lewis is arguably the best actor alive today, and this is one of his best, if not his best, performances of his career.
The real Gerry Conlon had problems adjusting to civilian life at first, but then wrote about his experiences, and advocated for other wrongfully convicted people not only in Britain but around the world. His life came to an end in 2014 after a long fight with lung cancer, but his story, along with those wrongfully convicted in the case, makes a compelling argument against things like the death penalty as well as a harsh condemnation of the system that so flagrantly violates rights. The film, which does take liberties with the original story, maintains the tone of outrage at injustice, gives great actors a chance to shine in roles that are increasingly sympathetic as the story goes along, and proves to be a testament to willpower and resolve, with a tremendously cathartic ending. An argument can be made that the film might well have deserved the Best Picture Oscar that year- I think it’s just as good as that year’s winner, Schindler’s List, but unlike the latter film, In The Name Of The Father is a film you can realistically see more than once, admiring the raw power of its actors along the way.