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In the Name of the Father (1993)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

A searing, true-life drama of criminal injustice, In the Name of the Father takes liberties with the truth even as it bemoans those qualities in the authorities. In early 70s Belfast, Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a petty crook who plays the mortally dangerous game of stripping lead from roofs. To the ever vigilant security forces he looks just like an IRA sniper, while to the terrorists he's a pain and deserves knee-capping. Stuck in the middle, Gerry and his equally wayward pal Danny (Anthony Brophy) try to do the best they can. However, after a riot-sparking incident, which endangers the local IRA leaders, Gerry has reached a point where his father Guiseppe (Pete Postlethwaite) can no longer protect him.

Thus, in a move replete with ironic undertones, Gerry ships out to London - the capital of the country which represses his homeland. Although the idea is to find a job and lodge with his aunt Annie Maguire (Britta Smith), Gerry instead hooks up with old friend Paul Hill (John Lynch). Together they head for a hippy squat where the promise of free love is a major attraction and buddy Paddy Armstrong (Mark Sheppard) can vouch for their characters. Life away from the tension of Northern Ireland is tremendous, poor but fun. Unfortunately the IRA mainland bombing campaign manages to influence even the drugged-out commune of Xanadu.

When the Guilford Pub bomb explodes, in a building-shattering detonation, Gerry and Paul have voluntarily excluded themselves from the squat. Shivering in a local park, with only fellow tramp Charlie Burke (Joe McPartland) for company, the friends are at a low ebb. Amazingly, luck comes their way via a careless prostitute and pretty soon Gerry is back in Belfast, strutting his funky new outfits. Free and easy with his recently acquired cash, Gerry cuts quite a figure even as Guiseppe and Ann (Joanna Irvine) wonder how he suddenly became rich. A snatched glimpse of Paul's distinctive shoes being bundled into the back of a police van presages the unexpected changes coming Gerry's way. In an aggressive pre-dawn raid, Gerry is taken for questioning under the new Prevention of Terrorism Act. Detective Mister Dixon (Colin Redgrave) is under pressure to catch the bombers; the nightmare has just begun.

Since the central story of In the Name of the Father is immune to criticism, the interpretation and execution are where small but nagging faults lie. To say that the initial scenes are gripping, rushing forcefully along at a giddy pace, is something of an understatement. The overwhelming torrent of events, as several families are destroyed in the fevered search for a scapegoat, is stunning. Rapidly, the show trial begins (with the ridiculous sight of a 14 year old boy fingered as a collaborator), leading to its inexorable conclusion (given the forced confessions). Under the witch-hunt atmosphere which pervaded England at that time, the outcome is not unexpected, just somehow unreal. The Conlon family can't believe that they've just been framed, yet they're the ones looking at 15 long years in prison.

The focus of In the Name of the Father then undergoes a shift subsequent to this powerful beginning, sliding into the relationship of Gerry and Guiseppe. Imprisoned together, isolated from their murderer/rapist fellow prisoners, one-to-one communication becomes all important. Over the years the dynamics of their love gradually changes, from bitter incomprehension to mutual respect and understanding. This is where the awesome performance of Day-Lewis shines, reflecting the internal alterations of 15 years of introspection and his transformation into a determined, rational martyr. Postlethwaite is also excellent as the morally strong father, troubled by his difficult son yet sure of his innocence. The remaining characters are far less well developed, with Emma Thompson in particular badly under-utilised.

Overall, there are both good and bad aspects to what is really two films compressed into one. The start and finish are terrific, as is the contrast between the two trials, but everything sags in the middle. The survival of Gerry and his father in prison is well constructed, yet too much background has been left out to allow a fully convincing context (the fact that this segment never occurred doesn't help). Fortunately, In the Name of the Father avoids aiming for the bigger picture, instead producing an intimate portrait of familial differences. From the perspective of these innocent suspects, the lesson that neither the IRA nor the police are to be trusted has definite impact. There are flaws in this particular rendering of reality, but intensity (in the script and performances) makes up for a lot.

This film was nominated for review by David Gruner.


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