Tag: Gerard McSorley

Michael Collins (1996)

Liam Neeson is outstanding as Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins

Director: Neil Jordan

Cast: Liam Neeson (Michael Collins), Aidan Quinn (Harry Boland), Stephen Rea (Ned Broy), Alan Rickman (Eamon de Valera), Julia Roberts (Kitty Kiernan), Ian Hart (Joe O’Reilly), Brendan Gleeson (Liam Tobin), Sean McGinley (Smith), Gerard McSorley (Cathal Brugha), Owen O’Neill (Rory O’Connor), Charles Dance (Soames), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Assassin), Ian McElhinney (Belfast cop)

Britain’s colonisation of Ireland left a poisonous historical legacy that blighted much of the twentieth century. The story of Irish independence, is also one of guerrilla and political brutality, civil war and terrible lost opportunities. Jordan’s biopic of Michael Collins is a study of the man who did more than any other to turn the IRA into an effective guerrilla fighting force – only to be consumed by the very same uncompromising ruthlessness he had set in motion. It’s a powerful and beautifully made film that seeks to explore just how and why violence and politics ended up hand-in-hand in Ireland for almost 100 years.

It opens with the 1916 Easter Uprising, an ignominious failure which the British managed to turn into a glorious one by executing rather than imprisoning its leadership. It’s one of many misjudgements in our occupation. It also the impetus for the young Michael Collins (Liam Neeson) to realise that playing by conventional military roles simply means defeat for the Irish time and again. Put simply, the IRA needs to stop trying to be a field army and instead become a guerrilla army, launching targeted hit-and-run terrorist attacks on the British. It’s a hugely successful campaign – despite the doubts of Sinn Fein leader Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman), who favours more conventional conflict (“They call us murderers!” he cries, with some justification). But after the British agree a Treaty that divides Ireland, the IRA splinters into pro- and anti Treaty factions. Can Collins put the cork back in the bottle of violence, before the country tears itself apart?

Of course, anyone with a passing knowledge of history knows that he can’t. Hanging over the entire film is the knowledge that Collins’ new methods of political assassination, plainclothes soldiers, bombs and bullets in the middle of the night will eventually expand into the indiscriminate bombing and shooting that consumed Ireland for decades. Not that Collins will live to see it, as he was assassinated aged 31 attempting to negotiate an end to Civil War. What makes Collins such an engaging and intriguing figure is that he (or at least the version we see in this film) was a man forced into methods he knew were wrong, to achieve an end he knew was right.

Neeson is superb as the charismatic, blunt yet poetic Collins who is noble enough to know that training young men to quickly and efficiently commit murder is an ignoble legacy. Jordan’s film doesn’t condone Collins use of violence, but establishes why it was necessary. Playing by more conventional rules simply wasn’t going to work – and Ireland didn’t see why they had to wait for British politics to shift. Unlike, say Gandhi in India (and Michael Collins makes a dark companion piece with Attenborough’s Gandhi, two charismatic campaigners choosing radically different paths to independence), Collins believed Britain had to be forced to see holding Ireland wasn’t worth the blood sacrifice and emotional cost. (Jordan’s film is also clear that Britain’s hands were equally dirty, the British conducting their own counter-campaign of assassination and violence).

The tragedy that Jordan finds in all of this is that, when the British were gone, Ireland had become so used to dealing with political problems with violence that they couldn’t imagine solving their disagreements with anything else. Collins is in fact too successful: and the film demonstrates that in radicalising his followers, he’s unable to gearshift them towards compromise. His attempts to get Sinn Fein to accept a Treaty that offers a workable compromise (as opposed to an unwinnable full-scale war), leads to him becoming a victim of exactly the sort of insurgency he pioneered in the first place. To Jordan he is a man trapped in a world of his own making, unable to remove the gun from Irish politics.

Michael Collins makes some compromises with history – something that was bound to get it attacked when dealing with events of such earth-shattering controversy – but it always feel spiritually accurate. The British Black and Tans really were as brutal as they seem, and while they didn’t use an armoured car on the pitch at the “Bloody Sunday” massacre at Croke Park, they did shoot indiscriminately at the crowd and fire at the stadium from an armoured car outside causing 14 fatalities (including two children) and 80 serious injuries. Similarly, in the aftermath of Collin’s assassination of most of the British intelligence operation in Dublin, three IRA leaders were “killed while trying to escape” (even if these were different men than the one who suffers this fate in the film). Just as IRA killings in the street were swift and brutal, so interrogations in Dublin Castle could stretch way beyond what the Geneva Convention would suggest was acceptable.

Much of the first half of the film is structured in the style of an old-fashioned gangster film, with hits and street gangs. Plucky IRA under-dogs (and Neeson’s Collins is so charming, you immediately root for him), take-on the more hissable baddies in British intelligence (led first by a bullying Sean McGinley and then a suavely ruthless Charles Dance). But the romance slowly drains out of this as lifeless bodies hit the floor – and Jordan always gives the focus to the dead after they fall, regardless of their ‘side’. The film has an infectious momentum, which makes its final acts, with their air of tragedy, even more sad and moving. It’s all also quite beautifully shot by Chris Menges, the film bathed in some of the most luscious blues you’ll see.

While Michael Collins is more sympathetic to the Irish (as you would expect), it clearly shows the psychological damage of killing. Hesitant shooters become increasingly ruthless at the cost of their humanity. Collins spends a ‘dark night of the soul’ openly confessing that he hates what he is making young men do and knows it is morally wrong. In the end this explains why methods were chosen, but doesn’t praise them – just as it doesn’t outright condemn them, considering what the Irish were up against. It’s a difficult balance, but very well walked.

There are flaws. Excellent as Liam Neeson (at the time 15 years older than Collins was when he died) and Aidan Quinn as his number two Harry Boland are, the film’s insertion of a love triangle between them and Collin’s eventual fiancée Kitty Kiernan often descends into weaker “Hollywoodese”. It’s not helped by having Kitty played by an egregious Julia Roberts, who struggles gamely with the Irish accent, and who never transcends her star status.

Additionally, while the film has an excellent performance by Alan Rickman (in a pitch perfect vocal and physical impersonation) as Eamon de Valera, it also repositions de Valera as an antagonist. Although de Valera certainly was a prima donna who associated his interests and Ireland’s as being one and the same, the film implies that de Valera’s actions are motivated as much by jealousy as principle and lays most of the blame for the civil war on him. Not to mention implying de Valera’s complicity in Collins eventual death (a heavily disputed assertion, strongly denied by de Valera).

Michael Collins though is a thoughtful, complex and engaging film that brings a tumultuous period of history successfully to life. Jordan’s film manages to wrestle an enthusiastic admiration for Collins, with a questioning exploration of how his actions (however well motivated) led to a legacy of violence. But it doesn’t lose sight of how Collins was aware he was using wicked methods for a noble aim, or that his goal was to bring peace. Wonderfully acted by a great cast (every Irish actor alive seems to be in it), with Neeson sensational, it’s an essential watch for anyone interested in this period of history.

The Constant Gardener (2005)

Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes in the brilliant and moving The Constant Gardener

Director: Fernando Meirelles

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Justin Quayle), Rachel Weisz (Tessa Quayle), Danny Huston (Sandy Woodrow), Hubert Koundé (Dr Arnold Bluhm), Archie Panjabi (Ghita Pearson), Bill Nighy (Sir Bernard Pellegrin), Gerard McSorley (Sir Kenneth Curtis), Pete Postlethwaite (Dr Lorbeer), Donald Sumpter (Tim Donohue), Richard McCabe (Arthur Hammond), Juliet Aubrey (Gloria Woodrow)

John Le Carré’s reputation as a spy novelist without peer can lead people to forget his books are often scathing condemnations of Western policy. The Constant Gardener, a superb adaptation of one of his finest novels, is no different. It’s a passionate, angry denunciation of how Western pharmaceutical companies, and their government partners, exploit the people of Africa. But it carries real force as it’s interwoven with a moving and tender study of grief and how it changes us, pushing us to see things from a different perspective. It’s that which gives the film its force.

Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is a middle-ranking career diplomat, serving in the high commission in Kenya. His wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an idealist determined to make a difference, is murdered. Justin determines to get to the bottom of her murder – and finds Tessa was investigating a British drugs company using the distribution of AIDS drugs to poverty-stricken Kenyans to test an experimental TB drug, covering up the harmful side effects and disposing of the dead. As flashbacks reveal Tessa’s investigation and motivations, Justin becomes ever more determined to unmask the drugs companies, and the figures in the British government protecting them.

Directed with vibrant urgency by Fernando Meirelles, The Constant Gardener is part thriller, part romance and part study of loss. Continuing his style from City of God, Meirelles’ camera work is jagged, hand-held and often unsettling, becoming ever more disjointed and edgy as the plot itself heads into darker and darker territory. The film throws us into its Kenyan setting, not shying away from the poverty of the villages. At one point, an aerial shot travels from the golf course, where the British are at play, across a train track and settles on the neighbouring slums.

This is all part of the film’s anger, which translates Le Carré’s feelings from the book. Inspired by the story of an aid worker he met in Cambodia in the 1970s (and who died in Kosovo in the 90s), the film is as furious as the novel at the heartless exploitation of Africa for the benefit of Western companies. Who counts the cost of Kenyan lives lost to experimental drugs? Certainly not the rich and powerful, who keep any consequences at a distance and rationalise them as for the greater good.

And not many have the courage to stand up to this. Most it seems are like Justin – good people who prefer not to think about, or look to deeply at, the impact we are having on the world. It takes a firebrand like Tessa to shake things up – and she pays a huge cost for it. Starting with Tessa’s death, the film feels at first like a mystery, but the culprits are all too obvious. Instead the question is why, not who, and the dark conspiracy that unfolds is really about establishing who knew what rather than who was involved (everyone, of course, was involved).

Rachel Weisz (winning the Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here) excels in a part that could have been a holier-than-thou left-wing agitator, but which she makes warm, human and real. Tessa is a woman who cares deeply, but also loves deeply, who is genuine, unaffected and speaks her mind. Weisz’ performance hits just the right notes, passionate but playful. The bond between her and Justin is real and based on a deep love on both their sides.

So warm is her performance, that you totally understand the all-consuming grief and loss Justin suffers at her death. It’s a very different sort of part for Fiennes – gentle, vulnerable, sweet, far different from his more patrician roles. He nails the part perfectly, bringing out of it a great deal of emotional force. The film is a tender exploration of the impact of grief on a person, and the mixture of shock, sorrow, anger and confusion in Fiennes’ performance feels completely real. This stillness and sombre approach to loss carries real weight.

The film becomes both a crusade – the husband taking up the cause of his slaughtered wife – but also an unusual romance. The greatest pain for Justin is discovering that his wife kept so much of her life secret from him. She did it to protect him, but he longs for the chance to prove to her that he could have been her “secret sharer”, that she could have trusted him. Effectively the film – and Justin’s quest – is to emotionally reunite with his wife, to fully understand her. The emotional heart of the film is this story, the husband effectively communing with the ghost of his wife, wanting there to be no more secrets keeping them apart.

This does mean that, at times, the conspiracy angle of the film gets slightly rushed. A late sequence effectively is four confessions from supporting characters to Justin in a row. The film gets a little bogged down in the mechanics of Justin chasing down various pieces of paper. The eventual quest to find the doctor behind the scandal (a wizened with guilt Pete Postlethwaite) offers a rather neat resolution. But it doesn’t matter too much as the film culminates in an ending that is as bizarrely bleak as it is hopeful.

Beautifully shot by Meirelles, with a raw immediacy that keeps the tension up, with a genuine sense of Kenyan life, it has a wonderful cast of character actors doing their bit (Bill Nighy as an arrogant senior diplomat and Danny Huston as a weasely coward stand out). It’s a film that is full of righteous fury at the West – but also with a tender beating heat for the pain of grief and the struggle with mourning. Emotional and political, it’s the finest Le Carré adaption on film.

The Boxer (1997)

Daniel Day-Lewis returns from 14 years in prison in this passionate but obvious film about the Troubles in Ireland, The Boxer

Director: Jim Sheridan

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Danny Flynn), Emily Watson (Maggie), Brian Cox (Joe Hamill), Ken Stott (Ike Weir), Gerard McSorley (Harry), David Hayman (Hamill’s aide), Ciaran Fitzgerald (Liam)

Daniel Day-Lewis and Jim Sheridan collaborated before this on the stirring, passionate and angry In the Name of the Father, a film that acutely analysed the impact of the Troubles on ordinary people. That film was about a miscarriage of justice that ruined lives. This film tries to cover similar ground, but somehow the force of the narrative never really comes together as much as it should.

The Boxer himself Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis) is released from prison after 14 years, due to his peripheral involvement with the IRA. He’s guilty for sure, but has played the game inside and refused to name names. He comes out still in love with Maggie (Emily Watson) – but she is married to another man currently in prison (putting her out of bounds by the code pushed by the IRA). Making things more complex, her father Joe (Brian Cox) is a leading IRA man currently part of negotiations with the British government. Danny and his former trainer Ike (Ken Stott), now a struggling alcoholic, decide to reopen the local boxing gym, making it a denomination free facility for all the community. But their efforts to try and build bridges are not welcomed by all – not least local IRA enforcer Harry (Gerard McSorley) who makes it his mission to destroy Danny.

Why does The Boxer not work as well it should do? It’s got nothing to do with the commitment of the cast, all of whom offer excellent performances. Day-Lewis, inevitably, spent almost three years in preparation learning to be a boxer. It’s just a shame that the script doesn’t really give anyone here something interesting to play with. Instead it makes fairly familiar points about the dangers when we let hatred govern our lives, and carefully sorts and packages most of its characters into goodies and baddies, while making sure in every single scene we are always told exactly what we should be thinking and feeling.

It’s a flaw that I’ve often found in other of Sheridan’s films. He’s a passionate but rather blunt director, full of righteous anger and a determination to make films that carry a social message. But he often makes these points without subtlety or imagination. Here we get an Ireland shot almost completely in a washed-out blue, with the tensions of a community increasingly simplified down into rotten apples playing on the fears and resentments of different groups to continue the spiral of hate.

In the middle of this, Sheridan places a love story between Day-Lewis and Watson’s character that both of them play with a tender commitment and an emotional vulnerability, but which never really invests the audience. It always feels too heavily built on cinematic contrivance – with its long separation, new relationships and social obstacles put in the way. Much as Day-Lewis and Watson give it their all, they never manage to make it feel anything other than it is – a rather tired “movie” love story, that moves it characters through familiar beats.

More interesting than this by far are the real tensions in a community that is tired of violence and wants to move on, but keeps on getting dragged back into old ways because there is simply too much history to overcome. The most interesting character by far is Brian Cox’s IRA bigwig, a man carrying a burden of blood from the past but has an actual desire to see the country change. A film about a man like this, trying to walk a tightrope between negotiations with the British and keeping his own furious foot-soldiers in line (when all they want to do is to bomb something) would have carried real impact. Sadly, it’s too often relegated to the margins of the story while the film follows the immediate social impact of Danny trying to find a third way between war and surrender.

Peaceful co-operation is what Danny wants, and the gym for all people in the Belfast community is how he intends to go about it. Boxing itself is peripheral to the film – what really matters is that idea of bringing people together, of giving them something they can all own and feel some pride in. It’s an idea that Ike believes in above all things, and the prospect of recreating it with Danny’s release from prison gives his life real meaning (Ken Stott is very good as a character who is something of a cliché but still carries a real emotional wallop). Ike and Danny’s vision offers the community a possibility of moving on – something some are not ready to take on.

Not least Harry, played by a quietly fuming Gerard McSorley, prowling scenes like a man who can’t wait to hit someone. The film does at time suggest that there are “good” IRA and “bad” IRA chaps (with Harry firmly in the bad), but it does at least show that these extremists are a danger to everyone, not least the people they claim to protect. Harry’s prejudice towards Danny is motivated above all by his fear of Ireland’s way of life changing, and in that way it forms a decent expression of the film’s core message about the difficulty – but essentialness – of moving on.

Sheridan’s film is a cry for hope and opportunity at a difficult time – and its alarming watching it now to remember what a ghastly place Northern Ireland was at this time, when it’s so well known today as the Game of Thrones backlot. It’s just a shame that the story feels like such a – well – story. The film feels like a slightly over-cooked melodrama, and as the character clashes you expect and the twists you can see coming start to work their way into the narrative, it feels like the central story of a man wanting to make a better life for himself and his neighbourhood gets lost in the mix.

And it does. That’s the basic weakness of The Boxer in the end. For all of Day-Lewis’ skill and Watson’s emotional truth, their story just ends up feeling not that important, you feel that the more interesting things are happening on the margins: Cox’s IRA man feels more worthy of a film, while Stott gets some of the most electric moments of emoting. Sheridan’s film has fire in it, but it ends up burning up his main narrative, while the story relies too heavily on melodrama and cliché. Eventually it fizzles out and you end up not feeling as outraged as you should. Where the true story of In the Name of the Father helped control Sheridan’s spoon-feeding tendencies, here the fictional story allows full reign for the sort of narrative twists that end up feeling a little too tired and obvious.