Although the ranks of great IRA films are swelling rapidly this combination of political history and mystery suspense masterwork is one of the best
Writer/director Kari Skogland makes Sir Ben Kingsley look better than ever in this award winning true story from the book of the same name by Nicholas Davies and Martin McGartland. Screen legend and multi-international award winner Kingsley (“House of Sand and Fog” (2003),”Sexy Beast” (2000), “Bugsy” (1991), “Gandhi” (1982)) is a great choice for this film. It requires a man with both ruthlessness and compassion. Few actors have shown both like Sir Ben.
Jim Sturgess starts the film out on a role as small time thief Martin McGartland hustling his latest haul from door to door. The wares to be peddled are the last things any self-respecting criminal would try to sell on the sly. Martin is as much concerned the community will find out he is trying to sell stolen clothes as the constabulary will throw him in jail.
In the course of giving the local British occupation troops the runaround martin attracts the attention of some high-up IRA operatives. These are men who stop at nothing to kill, maim and torture those who they see as enforcing the oppression of the Irish. Their most brutal wrath is saved for those who betray the confidence of the local IRA government. Their recruiting techniques are as skillful as their monitoring of those within the organization. They enforce their own laws and they carry out their own sentences in the cellars and abandoned warehouses of Northern Ireland.
Although Martin is loyal he comes to the point where he can no longer justify the murders around him. Fergus (Kingsley) keeps on him until he has secured his cooperation in this most dangerous of missions. This is a betrayal that stays with a person for life.
Ben Kingsley fans will see anything he’s in without giving it a second thought but for political aficionados this film offers much more than just a dynamite performance by Sir Ben. The setting deep within the IRA ranks in Northern Ireland is more sodden with violent heartbreak and lethal drama than any other domestic conflict in the 20th century. There was betrayal and the threat of death around every corner and the next person a loyal soldier was required to kill might well be his school chum, brother, father or mother.
This film manages to capture the “troubles” with unflinching realism. It is so realistic it is scary to watch even for those of us who have seen half of it before and read about the other half in the newspapers. The lead performances by Sir Ben, Jim Sturgess and Kevin Zegers are flawless and are backed up by supporting performances by a dozen performers who work like this is the last chance they will ever get. The cinematography is dork and foreboding and doesn’t avoid the dirt, crumbling bricks and peeling walls of a place and time where hope was almost lost. The sky is always filmed as a backdrop of unfathomable grey fluid that threatens to draw everybody and everything into it. Interior and exterior shots of the streets and buildings are literally dripping with decay and fading into long focus shots of colors that wash out to sepia tones as a person’s eyesight turns to black and white under severe stress. The combination of the flatness of the sky and land emphasize the do or die nature of life during the troubles. There is no turning back although at times people beg for death as the only escape.
The movie walks a fine line with its extensive explicit violence. Although it will be written off by some as “just another IRA film” and will be avoided due to the perception of the exploitation of graphic mayhem there is a vital story here. In the end the quality of the story and the overall production is seen to require the realism to bring forward the message of living by the sword and dying by the sword. Powerful supporting work by Cannes award winner Kevin Zegers builds a firm foundation for the master Sir Ben and the emerging lead Jim Sturgess to do some excellent work.
Director: Kari Skogland
Written by: Kari Skogland (screenplay), book by Nicholas Davies and Martin McGartland
Starring: Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess, Kevin Zegers, Natalie Press and Rose McGowan
Release: August 21, 2009
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 117 minutes
Country: UK / Canada