Sheridan pulls no punches

"The Boxer" (15) Nationwide

"The Boxer" (15) Nationwide

A thoughtful and highly topical picture of life and conflict in Northern Ireland, Jim Sheridan's new film, The Boxer, inevitably evokes memories of several other recent films. Its picture of Belfast during a fragile ceasefire recalls Thaddeus O'Sullivan's Nothing Personal, which was set in 1975 as extremists on both sides sought to sabotage the uneasy peace.

The experiences of the central character in The Boxer, a Belfast man who became involved with the IRA in his late teens and ended up serving 14 years in a British prison, echo Sheridan's previous movie, In The Name Of The Father, which began in 1974 and dealt with the arrest and 14-year imprisonment of the wrongly convicted Gerry Conlon.

The crucial difference is that The Boxer is set in the present, as signalled from the outset when the opening credits are overlain with soundbites from Bill Clinton, Ian Paisley, Tony Blair and, telling us "they haven't gone away", Gerry Adams.


The film begins with the release from jail of the 32-year-old Danny Flynn (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), a once-promising Belfast boxer who has put his IRA past firmly behind him. He's regarded with suspicion by the Provos he has now rejected and, we're told, is still alive only because he refused to name names when arrested.

The sequence of Danny's release is intercut with the prison wedding of a handcuffed prisoner and his white-clad bride. The fuss which breaks out at the subsequent reception, when a young man asks the bride to dance, neatly sets up the film's exploration of the issue of prisoners' wives. As a mark of respect to their imprisoned husbands, these women are monitored closely, to ensure that nobody attempts to lure them into infidelity - and to ensure that the women themselves repress their sexual urges. Returning to his walled-up Belfast flat and determined to change his life, Danny Flynn sets out to make a comeback in the ring, channelling his energy and what's left of his youthful idealism into fighting by the rules. Reuniting with his old trainer (Ken Stott) who's now a homeless alcoholic, Danny sets about rebuilding the delapidated gym of the local community centre and re-opening it as a non-sectarian venue. Danny is also reunited with his teenage sweetheart, Maggie (Emily Watson), the daughter of an IRA godfather, Joe Hamill (Brian Cox). Not wanting her to wait all those years for his release from prison, Danny had refused to allow Maggie to visit him; she married his best friend, now a prisoner himself, and had a child with him. The endemic nature of the violence is sharply illustrated when this boy (Ciaran Fitzgerald) begins to follow the destructive example set by his father and grandfather.

"We're not kids any more," Maggie tells Flynn, as the two of them tentatively - and clandestinely - begin to rekindle their relationship. Meanwhile, the parallel stories of Flynn's attempted comebacks as a boxer and as Maggie's lover are set against the edgy atmosphere of the city when Joe Hamill leads the IRA into a ceasefire, incurring the wrath of hardliners personified by Harry (Gerard McSorley), who maintains a watchful eye on Danny Flynn.

It is the political thrust of The Boxer which is its most vital element. Never shirking the complexities of the issues, the film is lucidly unambiguous in declaring its hand and promoting the case for the paramilitaries to put down their guns and start talking peace. Calm in its reasoning and serious in its intent, the film builds to a powerful climax which ultimately delivers some glimmer of hope.

Having spent almost half his life in a jail where he refused to congregate with his fellow IRA prisoners, Danny Flynn registers as a quiet man to the point of being virtually silent, while smouldering with anger and frustration, tinged with an undying trace of optimism. The admirable Daniel Day-Lewis plays him in a perfectly judged and mostly low-key performance which is remarkably expressive and builds with an hypnotic charge.

The romantic strand of the film is made touching and compelling by the natural chemistry sparked by Day-Lewis and the radiant Emily Watson in their scenes together, a series of sequences more dependent on their facial and physical interaction than on dialogue-heavy exchanges. There is, perhaps, too little dialogue here on one level, in that we learn very little about Maggie's marriage - for reasons never made clear, she never seems to visit her husband, who remains unseen for the entire film. The Boxer has been transformed utterly in its circuitous development from its genesis as a story based on the life of the former world champion, Barry McGuigan, although McGuigan did serve as boxing trainer to Daniel Day-Lewis, who is on peak physical form. While remaining integral to the story, the boxing element takes a back seat to the political story and the romantic angle. However, the three boxing bouts in the film are expertly shot by Chris Menges and briskly edited by Gerry Hambling - the first filmed very tightly and close up; the second shot in a looser, wider style; the third fast and furious.

Jim Sheridan's skill with actors is abundantly evident, down to the smallest roles in The Boxer. In addition to the sterling work of Day-Lewis and Watson, he elicits strong performances from Brian Cox, who oozes authority as the IRA kingpin; Ken Stott, transforming what could have been a stereotypical washed-up, boozy trainer; Ciaran Fitzgerald, who made his debut in Into The West and grows with confidence and presence as he enters his teens; and the formidable Gerard McSorley, who is scarily credible as the hate-monger who rocks the peace process.

"The Ice Storm" (18) Virgin, Screen at D'Olier Street, Ormonde Stillogan, Dublin

The Seventies start here. The Decade That Taste Forgot will be immortalised in all its tackiness and fumbling awkwardness in a range of movies due here this year, beginning with today's opening of Ang Lee's excellent The Ice Storm. Set in the affluent suburbs of New Canaan, Connecticut over Thanksgiving weekend in November 1973, the film is both acerbic and sensitive in its exploration of disillusionment dawning on post-Sixties suburban liberals at the time of the Watergate crisis.

This subtle and illuminating film is based on a recent novel by Rick Moody, articulately adapted by writer-producer James Schamus in a screenplay which took an award at Cannes last year. It marks yet another leap forward for the gifted Taiwanese director, Ang Lee, after The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense And Sensibility. It offers a remarkably acute picture of this pivotal period from Lee, a director who did not set foot in the US until 1978, on his first trip outside Taiwan.

The ice storm of the title does not happen until the movie's multi-layered, cathartic final sequences, but the film features recurring ice-capped images onwards from the opening credits, which thaw away and serve as an apt symbolism for the glacial characters who populate the picture.

The film centres on the definitely dysfunctional Hood family. Whatever love once existed between the husband and wife, played by Kevin Kline and Joan Allen, has long ago evaporated; while she simmers with sexual frustration, he is involved in an adulterous affair with a hedonistic married neighbour (Sigourney Weaver). The narrative interlinks their relationships with the sexually curious behaviour of their children.

As tragic as it is comic, The Ice Storm is so replete with cultural references - to Watergate, Deep Throat, vinyl pop music, wife swapping parties where the guests leave their car keys in a bowl by the door, and cringe-inducingly accurate recreations of the ghastly fashions of the period - that it could conceivably pass for one of the more incisive movies of the time. Ang Lee's film has the added benefits of hindsight and reflection, and it is consummately played by a fine cast - Kline and Weaver seizing upon the potential of their best roles in years; Joan Allen, brittle and quietly brilliant again, as she was in Nixon and The Crucible; and a quartet of exemplary young actors in Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Adam Hann-Byrd and Tobey Maguire. Distinctively photographed by Frederick Elmes, it features a fine, atmospheric score by Atom Egoyan's regular composer, Mychael Danna, punctuated by a period soundtrack that spans Frank Zappa, Jim Croce, Free and the Archies.

"Snakes And Ladders" (members and guests only) IFC, Dublin; Kino, Cork

Finally arriving here 18 months after its world premiere screening at the Toronto festival, Snakes And Ladders marks a disappointing feature debut for the Irish writer-director Trish McAdam. Described in its publicity as "an ironic and playful look at the ups and downs in the lives of two contemporary Dublin women", it is as thin on irony as its "playful" aspects are in entertainment value.

Chief among its problems is that it's hard to care a whit for the romantic and professional problems of its central character, the 30-year-old Jean (Pom Boyd) who works as a street performer in Dublin with her best friend (Gina Moxley). Living in Temple Bar to shake off the horrors of a suburban upbringing, Jean is a singularly sullen, self-pitying and self-centred character whose irritable nature makes her an irritating presence which becomes progressively more unbearable.

Looking like he's auditioning to play Keith Richards, comedian Sean Hughes is equally painful to endure in his role as Jean's lover, the fiddle player in a band which, implausibly, goes down a storm with songs such as She Married An Animal. The turning point in Jean's life comes when this male animal asks her to marry him - the nadir of the movie is the scene where he proposes to her in a lavatory cubicle and declares, "Jean, I love you, I'm kneeling in piss for you." Ever the narky crank, Jean is aghast at the enthusiastic response of her widowed mother (Rosaleen Linehan) to news of the imminent wedding, and is encouraged to change her man and her job. Incidentally, her new employer is TNE (Telefis Naisiunta na hEireann), an organisation where interview boards apparently chain-smoke as they assess job applicants.

It is the older actors, especially Rosaleen Linehan and Maureen Toal, who fare best in this rambling and unconvincing yarn which is at its liveliest when Joe Dolan breezes through his cabaret routine. The cast also features Paudge Behan, Darragh Kelly, Catherine White and singer Pierce Turner.