Silver Screen Troubles


When Universal Studios tested Jim Sheridan's The Boxer with American audiences last year, they discovered an awkward truth. It was not that the viewers, chosen as representatives of Middle America, didn't like Daniel Day Lewis or boxing or violence. It was that they lacked a piece of information central to the story. They didn't know that there had been an IRA ceasefire. Since the film is set during the ["]cessation["] of 1994 to 1996, this was rather a problem. Sheridan had to shoot new scenes in which the fact of the ceasefire is underlined in simple, straightforward terms.

This difficulty demonstrated one of the reasons why the cinema has dealt so badly with the Northern Ireland conflict. The primary audience is American and it is impossible to assume that that audience knows anything. Anyone trying to make a commercially successful film about the conflict has to start from a presumption of ignorance. It is almost as if every Western had to explain what cowboys and Indians were. Or as if every second World War film had to start with the rise of fascism. One of the usual preconditions for complex movies - the ability to play with or go against the accepted forms of the genre - simply cannot be fulfilled. For American audiences, even the illusion that Northern Ireland has been rendered comprehensible is sufficient grounds for astonishment. The Dallas Morning News, for instance, began its review of Terry George's Some Mother's Son last year with an announcement that "the conflict in Northern Ireland is so complicated that it's incredible" that George had managed to create an "understandable" movie. Considering that Some Mother's Son relied on silly caricatures of the British and pretty much ignored the Protestants, one could only imagine how incredible a truly complicated film about the hunger strikes might have seemed.

It is easier, of course, not to try for complexity. Casting Richard Gere as an IRA man and surrounding him with romantic cliches - as the makers of The Jackal did recently - is always going to be Hollywood's first option. Asking the run-of-the-mill star vehicle thriller to reflect any kind of reality - let alone a reality as ambiguous and many-sided as that of Northern Ireland - is a recipe for despair. Since most American films caricature and misrepresent America, how can anyone expect that they should somehow provide a realistic portrayal of Ireland?

What's striking, though, is that bad movies about Northern Ireland have been made even by good directors. Alan J. Pakula, for instance, has a long record of making politically complex, intelligent films like The Parallax View, Klute and All the President's Men. But give him a story about an IRA man - The Devil's Own, released last year - and we end up with Brad Pitt as a pouting, gorgeous killer, whose 24 murders merely add to his mystique. With Pitt as the hero, the dice are loaded from the start. And when the movie begins with a sequence in which his younger self is the innocent witness to and victim of violence, the image of the IRA as a pure reaction to the violence of others is inescapable. The failure of an honourable and intelligent director like Pakula to escape the cliches is probably a more accurate indicator of the depth of the problem than the risible efforts of The Jackal. And to be fair, it should be acknowledged that Hollywood, even with the best of intentions, has had to work in a vacuum that is at least in part of our own making.

The primary absence in films about Northern Ireland has been, paradoxically, Northern Ireland itself. In the 30 years of the Troubles, very few feature films of any description have been made in the North - Thaddeus O'Sullivan's December Bride and Margo Harkin's Hushabye Baby being the only notable exceptions. And though both reflected aspects of the world in which the conflict has been played out, neither did so directly. Much more typically, Dublin has stood in for Belfast - In the Name of the Father, Some Mother's Son and O'Sullivan's Nothing Personal being some of the more recent examples. At the simplest physical and visual level, the conflict has been continually displaced.

The second notable absence has been Protestants. Ever since James Mason played an IRA man on the run in Odd Man Out in 1947, nationalist violence has had a certain cinematic allure. For one thing, the very large Irish-American audience tends to define itself as Catholic and nationalist and it offers a tempting marketplace for stories about the IRA. For another, the IRA's campaign, to those who know little about it, seems to fit in to an epic cinematic story of oppression and resistance. Dogged defenders of the status quo just don't have the same romantic appeal. The absence of Protestants and Loyalists from films about the conflict is all the more striking by contrast with the theatre. Graham Reid's stage plays set among the world of working-class Loyalism - and of course his television Billy trilogy, which brought Kenneth Branagh to prominence - showed that there are dramatic stories to be told. So did Gary Mitchell's In a Little World of Our Own last year. Plays exploring the Protestant and Loyalist aspects of modern Irish history, like Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and Sebastian Barry's The Steward of Christendom have had an international resonance. Yet only very recently, with Nothing Personal (and reportedly with ?????????????'s Resurrection Man, yet to be released in Ireland) has there been the beginning of a complex cinematic picture of Loyalism.

And the third significant absence has been, in the portrayal of the IRA itself, any kind of realism. Though Richard Gere, Mickey Rourke and Brad Pitt haven't helped, it's not just Hollywood's fault. When it comes to the IRA, Irish directors have hardly been models of credibility. Pat O'Connor's Cal, for instance, in many respects a decent and moving film, has a scene in which an IRA bomber takes the young hero off the street into a bookshop and shows him how to plant an incendiary device. Neil Jordan's The Crying Game has the hilarious sado-sexual fantasy figure of Miranda Richardson as a senior IRA operative who seems to have vamped her way off the set of The Rocky Horror Show. It would in fact be all too easy to concoct an all-purpose pastiche of Irish cinematic images of the IRA with John Kavanagh as the ranting godfather, Stephen Rea as the haunted, hangdog killer with second thoughts, Brenda Fricker as the granny whose endless history lessons are behind it all and Niall Toibin as the cynical, world-weary veteran. The faces are so well-known, and the actions either so predictable or so exotic that you wonder how come the Brits didn't pick them all up years ago. There has been, too, a tendency to a kind of political escapism best exemplified by the recent film A Further Gesture, in which Stephen Rea plays the inevitable hangdog IRA man with second thoughts. The potentially intriguing scenario of an escapee from Long Kesh on the run in the seedy underworld of New York gives way to an absurd each-way bet on violence. The film is an extraordinary piece of wish-fulfilment in which the movie industry creates an ideal figure - the IRA with a decent cause. Rea, disillusioned in some unclear way with his own movement, links up with Latin American refugees, real victims of an uncomplicated tyranny. He gets to shoot people again, but this time in a clear-cut struggle of goodies and baddies. In its own way, the film is the ultimate comment on the poor fit between Northern Ireland's murky politics and the clear moral conflicts that movie makers prefer.

The irony, of course, is that the depiction of the conflict will probably deepen only as the conflict itself fades. It is certainly striking that since the peace process got underway in earnest, films like Nothing Personal and The Boxer, with their infinitely more subtle evocations of the violence, have become possible. That peace allows you to tell better stories may be the one useful thing that Northern Ireland can learn from its three decades of feeding the film industry.