Civil liberties remain in short supply for the beleaguered Catholics of Northern Ireland, but filmmaker Jim Sheridan has taken the liberty of vividly dramatizing one of the most notorious instances of recent British tyranny. Let's hope Prime Minister John Major and Parliament are watching--red-faced and thoughtful.
With a passion reminiscent of the great Costa-Gavras political thrillers (and the muckrakers of yore), Sheridan's In the Name of the Father recounts the ordeal of Giuseppe and Gerry Conlon, a Belfast bookie-clerk and his slum-toughened son who in 1974 were railroaded into prison for a London pub bombing they didn't commit. Amid the warlike atmosphere and public hysteria of the time--the infamous Prevention of Terrorism Act had just given British police almost totalitarian powers to detain and interrogate--the sneering petty thief Gerry Conlon and his circumspect "da" were ideal scapegoats. They fit the fringe-dwelling, working-class stereotype of IRA terrorists. Police beatings, threats and forced confessions in the absence of legal counsel took care of the rest.
But from the beginning British police and prosecutors knew that the Conlons--and Gerry Conlon's fellow victims in what became known as the "Guildford Four"--were innocent. So were six other members of the Conlon family, all jailed as "accomplices." Crucial evidence was withheld at the mass trial, and even when the real pub bombers later confessed to the crime, British authorities refused to risk the scandal of reopening the case. Giuseppe Conlon died in a prison hospital in 1980. The Guildford Four were finally exonerated in 1989. But the Guildford Four miscarriage continues to haunt the British justice system.
Writer/director Sheridan made a splash in 1989 with My Left Foot, in which emergent star Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed quadriplegic Irish writer Christy Brown. Since then Sheridan has directed The Field and written Into the West, and Day-Lewis has worked on this side of the Atlantic in The Last of the Mohicans and The Age of Innocence. Their collaboration here is breathtaking. In Day-Lewis's searing portrayal of Gerry Conlon we see not only the wayward, scruffy street kid who's transformed by injustice into a national symbol, but the rage-ridden, resentful son who's transformed by his father's subtle moral strength into a man of substance, even wisdom. It's a great performance, distinguished by shading as well as shouting, but were it not for Sheridan's lean intensity, Day-Lewis might not have so much edge. As it is, we see every emotion on that craggy young face.
Veteran character man Pete Postlethwaite is equally effective as Giuseppe Conlon, a simple man swept into the maelstrom with only his goodness for a defense. While physically withering away before our eyes in the bedlam of a high-security prison, Giuseppe grows in spiritual stature: By the end, he's the very soul of Irish Catholic martyrdom, although Sheridan, wisely, never puts too fine a point on it.
In the Name of the Father is more kinetic than its models--the classic Costa-Gavras expose Z and State of Siege--and that's as it should be. The vintage tunes on the track--Dylan and Hendrix and Marley, among others--jolt along impatiently, like Gerry Conlon himself, and Peter Bizou's camera rarely remains still as it grabs at the gray-green nightmare of an interrogation room or the dull sheen of a prison corridor. Film technique and righteous outrage merge here: You can't tell one from the other.
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Emma Thompson's screen time as the dogged lawyer who sticks with the Conlon case through the years is slighter than you might expect; Corin Redgrave's as Dixon, the odious British detective who framed the Conlons, is larger than Irish patriots might wish. Little matter. The performances of Day-Lewis and Postlethwaite, charged with passion and belief and Yeats's "terrible beauty," constitute the hard moral center of this shocking and brilliant movie. In the end, though, acting is not the point: Justice is.
Care for an offscreen irony? Suffice it to note that from the days of Oliver Cromwell, some things haven't changed: Since making In the Name of the Father, Thompson and Day-Lewis have been widely criticized in the British press for taking part in what's termed "pro-IRA propaganda."
Alas, the troubles know no end.