In recent years the Irish have quietly begun a sort of national cinema. I say "quietly" because they haven't received the fanfare of the Chinese cinema (both on and off the mainland), and "sort of" because films from My Left Foot to The Commitments to The Crying Game all deal with Irish culture, but they are seldom made with Irish money, and not always by Irish people. Still, the films exist, and a worldview that had previously been expressed almost exclusively in writing -- the preferred form of the cash-poor artist -- has suddenly become visual. The results have been a mixed bag, ranging from The Crying Game's cutting edge to, say, the more innocent folklore of Hear My Song. The current In the Name of the Father is the first Irish film to focus almost exclusively on politics.
Based on a real-life story, the film opens in early-'70s Belfast. Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) lives dangerously, but he is not one of the young men who have taken up rocks against either the Protestants or the British occupiers. Instead he's a small-time, rather dense young thiefstupid enough to get in trouble with both sides. He enjoys being chased by British troops, but that doesn't make him an ally of the IRA. They don't like the way he stirs the Brits up, sometimes leading them into IRA territory in hot pursuit.
Gerry has also worn out his welcome at home. His father, Guiseppe (Pete Postlethwaite) -- yes, he's Irish -- is made of sterner moral fiber than Gerry, and his son's thieving and general shiftlessness has the old man torn between kicking his son out and smothering him with tough love.
When Gerry's troubles reach critical mass, the IRA and Guiseppe agree that the boy would be better off in London, so Gerry ships off with a mate, Paul Hill (John Lynch). Swinging London has lost a bit of its glamour by this point, but the Belfasters, who have a touch of Beavis and Butt-head in them, are dazzled by the city's social and sexual opportunities. They wind up in a squatter-occupied house and discover at least the concept of free love among the British post-hippies. Even in such a libertarian house, though, the Irish aren't completely welcome. After a couple of ugly scenes with a long-haired, dope-smoking British nationalist, they leave the squat and decide to live on their wits. To no one's surprise, they wind up in trouble. It's the size and shape of their problems that's stunning.
An IRA terrorist sets off a bomb, and through a string of coincidences, the boys are arrested for the crime. A bigger aftershock comes later when, because of the bizarrely far-reaching powers the British government granted itself under an anti-terrorism law, Guiseppe and even Gerry's maiden aunt (living in London) are locked up as well.
In a travesty of justice worthy of Clarence Brandley's persecutors, enough evidence is suppressed and concocted to send them all to prison. In a rather heavy-handed irony (can''t say whether it happened in real life), the ne'er-do-well Gerry and his upright father wind up in the same prison cell.
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To this point, In the Name of the Father has been strong enough. Director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, The Field) has not shown inspiration, but the injustice he's describing is striking enough to carry the day. But once Gerry and Guiseppe are in prison, the story slows down, and Sheridan loses his balance. The first prison scene, in which the two are covered in a blue lice-dip, is visually interesting, but otherwise this is standard prison-movie fare, complete with gangs (Brits vs. Irish, of course) and sadistic wardens.
The truly unusual aspect of the lockup -- the forced closeness between father and son -- might work better in a book because of its concerns with psychology and interior life. Here, Day-Lewis and Postlethwaite battle gamely to convey the pair's emotional back-and-forth -- the son thinks Dad is a loser for refusing to accept the IRA's call to violence; the father would disown a son who planted a bomb -- but the screenplay (by Terry George and Sheridan) lacks subtlety. We get only the most obvious and outward signs of Gerry and Guiseppe's relationship.
Once Emma Thompson appears, as a lawyer eager to take on both their case and the British government, the film simply becomes a rabblerouser. This very straightforward movie doesn't engage us in the process of defending Gerry and Guiseppe; we're simply watching things happen.
Because of its subject matter, you have to be glad the film was made, especially since its release has knocked a few wigs askew in England. But you could wish it drew us more deeply into the lives of its characters.