It's no history lesson, but as a thriller, Fifty Dead Men Walking thrills, writes MICHAEL DWYER.
INFORMERS and whistleblowers exert a fascination for film-makers and novelists because the theme is ripe with moral dilemmas.
It’s at least as difficult for the protagonists to trust other people as it is for anybody to trust them. They are regarded by their former associates as having committed the ultimate act of betrayal. And they allow themselves to be placed in a precarious position that could put their lives at risk.
The fate of one informer in the Belfast-set Fifty Dead Men Walkingis unflinchingly illustrated when a "tout" is tortured and killed. In a telling sequence during the man's funeral, his father says that he doesn't blame the RUC for turning him into an informer, nor the IRA for killing him. "I blame my son for going against his people," he says.
The film was "inspired" by Martin McGartland's book, which he titled Fifty Dead Men Walkingbecause he believes his undercover activities as an informer saved that many lives between 1987 and 1991. McGartland, who has been living under assumed identities since then, threatened legal action to stop the movie's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last autumn.
He claimed that the film misrepresented his life and showed him participating in bomb attacks and torture, both of which he denies. A settlement was reached and he withdrew his objections on the eve of the premiere. An on-screen disclaimer states that “some of the events, characters and scenes in the film have been changed”.
An example of that dramatic licence is in the prologue, set in 1999 when McGartland’s past catches up with him and he is shot six times. That attack did happen, and McGartland survived after emergency surgery, but it took place in Whitney Bay in England, not in Canada, as stated in the movie, which is directed by Canadian film-maker Kari Skogland.
Skogland prefaces her film with a rudimentary précis of the background to the Northern Ireland conflict for the benefit of international audiences.
Portrayed by English actor Jim Sturgess (from 21and Across the Universe), McGartland is introduced as a petty thief hawking stolen goods in Belfast before he's recruited by a Special Branch handler codenamed Fergus (Ben Kingsley), who provides him with money and a car. "We uphold the law and we break the law to serve the law," Fergus tells him.
The movie is shaped as a thriller and proves most effective on that level, skillfully building tension as McGartland has to tell one lie after another to cover his tracks, and as he attempts to maintain his family life throughout the consequent turmoil. Skogland proves adept at orchestrating action sequences, and she stages riots, explosions and chases with impressive flair. The film gains in conviction from its well-chosen cast, led by the promising Sturgess, whose accent is spot-on in a persuasive portrayal that bristles with nervous energy.
An exception is Rose McGowan’s caricature as a flame-haired fictional character captioned as an IRA intelligence officer, and Kingsley remains admirably straight-faced as he delivers the risible line: “She uses her body like Mata Hari.” Equally unlikely is an IRA man’s reference to a “parking lot”, not to mention the scene wherein McGartland and his lover (Natalie Press) have sex al fresco – on the roof of the Europa Hotel in Belfast.
FIFTY DEAD MEN WALKING Directed by Kari Skogland. Starring Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Kevin Zegers, Natalie Press, Rose McGowan.
15A cert, gen release, 117 min★★★